What is modern Data Science?

Updated: Nov 15, 2018

Data science turns data into insights or even actions, but what does that really mean?

What modern data science is?

We have all heard it, data science turns data into insights or even actions, but what does that really mean? Data science can be thought of as the basis for empirical research, for data is used to inform our hypotheses and provide observations. In many cases, this data is used either by businesses or by scientists to inform their understanding of a phenomenon. Because there are often large troves of data which we can mine for insights, we often call this big data.


Insight is a term we use to refer to the data product of data science. It is extracted from a diverse amount of data through a combination of exploratory data analysis and modeling.

The questions we ask are sometimes quite specific, but sometimes it takes looking at the data and patterns in it to come up with a specific question.

Another important point to recognize is that data science is not a static, one-time analysis. It involves a process where the models we generate lead to insights and those insights are then improved by gathering further empirical evidence, or simply, data.

Why data science is the key to getting value out of data?

For example, a book retailer like amazon.com can constantly improve the model of a customer's book preferences using the customer demographics, his or her previous purchases and prior book reviews by the customer. Their models also likely take into account the similarity of customers to detect common interests.

Another example is that the book retailer can also use this information to predict which customers are likely to like a new book and take action to market the book to those customers. This is where we see insights being turned into action.

So Just like this, business leaders and decision makers act based on the evidence provided by their data science teams. Because companies take action based on these insights, data science teams need to be experts in their practice to ensure those insights are well-reasoned.

Where the growing interest for it comes from?

You've likely just begun hearing more from the media about data science and from employers about the demand for data scientists so it might seem like data science came out of nowhere. However, data science has been around for a very long time. Scientists have always used data to gain insight based on observations, so why then is data science suddenly on the rise? The answer lies in two things. First, our ability to collect data in real time has ballooned with data coming from a variety of places including real time environmental sensors, websites, smart phones, and a variety of other sources. In turn, this influx of data has increased demand for large scale data processing. This data growth combined with the advances in storage, networking, and computing at scale has brought us to a new era of data science. Many dynamic data driven applications in this new era build upon data driven predictions to support decisions, just like the Amazon book prediction example we discussed. It is nearly impossible to find an industry, scientific discipline, or engineering endeavor today that is not impacted by data science. One need only look at the major trends in smart cities, precision medicine, energy management, and smart manufacturing to see how it is shaping our economy today, and all these fields are looking for expert in a combination of advanced data analytics, the traditional modeling, and simulations.

How much data are we really talking about?

We started by saying that we are collecting more data than ever before, but how much data and in what form are we really talking about? Let's take a look. The data can include anything from user preferences and purchasing history on websites to scientific data from remote sensors and instruments and personal health data from variable devices and social media data related to customer satisfaction, political trends, health epidemics, law enforcements and criminal activities, as well as medical data from drug trials, treatment options, and patient population etc. This is probably already sounding like a lot of data, but we could look at this differently. If you look at just one minute on the internet we'll begin to fully grasp the massive size of data produced and data stored every minute.

Every minute, 187 million emails are sent, 200,000 photos are uploaded and 2.4 million snaps created. On YouTube, 4.3 million videos are viewed and 481,000 tweets are sent. It is not any different for scientific data. HPWREN, the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network that only connects sensors in San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial Counties, collect 30 terabytes of data annually. The HPWREN data collected from weather stations throughout San Diego County for wildfire is used for monitoring and modeling. This consists of daily amount of half a gigabyte environmental sensor data and four gigabytes of camera data throughout 18 stations. This may not sound like a lot, but this is just one system for three counties. NASA's MODIS, or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro radiometer is a satellite that has imaging instruments on two satellites called Aqua and Terra. MODIS instruments on these satellites capture images of the entire surface of Earth every one to two days, acquiring data in 36 spectral events. This equals 40 science products and produce 600 gigabytes of data per day which equals 219 terabytes of data per year. Other large volume data sources in scientific research comes from LIGO, Deep Space Network, and Protein Data Bank. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is a data source that led to the gravitational wave discovery in 2016. The experiment provides large scale physics and observatory to detect cosmic gravitational waves. Deep Space Network, which is NASA's network of large antennas and communication sites located in several countries that are used to support space missions and research asteroids and planets, updates its data stores with real time data every five seconds. Another research product is the Protein Data Bank, which is a repository of information about 3-D structures of large biological molecules, which is important for research on human health and disease and drug development. Management and analysis of such scientific data sets is a huge challenge for modern scientific research, and in there you heard words that start with peta, exa, and even yotta to define a size, but what does that all really mean? For comparison, 100 megabytes will hold a couple of encyclopedias. A DVD is around five gigabytes, and one terabyte would hold around 300 hours of good quality video. A data oriented business currently collects data in the order of terabytes, but petabytes are becoming more common to our daily lives. CERN's Large Hadron Collider generates 15 petabytes of data a year.

Why is an Exabyte impressive?

Let's start with one byte. One letter, A for example, takes up exactly one byte of space. A page of letters can have around 3,000 letters so, a page of text is about 2 kilobytes. And so a book of about 500 pages will take up about 1 megabyte. Then, 1 exabyte is about 1 million of billions of books!

Another way of thinking would be taking an HD camera and following a person for every single day of his life for every single hour minute and second and film everything that he is doing for 70 or 80 years. Like this you can fit all of that material onto 1 terabyte.

Then 1 exabyte can fit all of 1 million life experiences filmed through their life for every single second that they live! That is pretty impressive!

According to a report by IDC, sponsored by a big data company called EMC, digital data will grow by a factor of 44 until the year 2020. This is a growth from .8 zettabytes in 2009 to 35.2 zettabytes. A zettabyte is one trillion gigabytes. That is 10 to the power of 21. The effects of it will be huge. Think of all the time, cost, and energy that will be used to store and make sense of such an amount of data. The next era will be yottabytes, that is 10 to the power 24, and brontobytes, that is 10 to the power 27, which is really hard to imagine for most of us at this time. This is also what we call data at an astronomical scale.

The bottom line is that all of these sources point to an exponential growth in data volume and storage.

What is the recommended set of skills for a data scientist?

While many of us are excited by the opportunities offered by big data, this rapid growth also comes with a number of management and analysis challenges, least of which is information overload. Our challenges aren’t just to manage the data but to try to see how everything is connected. Finding the connections between the kinds of data sets we've discussed has the potential to lead to interesting discoveries. Such an endeavor requires proper use of data management, data driven methods, scalable tools for dynamic coordination and scalable execution, and a skilled interdisciplinary workforce. This is where the data scientist skills come in the picture. By putting time into skills and programming in Python, statistics, machine learning, and big data, the data scientist will be ready to take on some of the technical challenges in data science like drug effectiveness analysis, crime pattern detection, and self-driving cars.

As a summary, a data science team often comes together to analyze situations or answer questions in business or science which no single person could solve on their own. There are lots of moving parts to the solution, but in the end all these parts should come together to provide actionable insight based on data science. Being able to use evidence-based insight in your decisions is more important now than ever.

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