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June 18, 2014

Are You Data Literate? Education for the Information Economy

Brian Liou

Over four months ago I began writing a handbook with two partners to inform students and young professionals about the data science industry. We interviewed over 30 data scientists, data analysts, CEOs, and academic professionals from the Chief Economist at Google to the founder of Cloudera.

We heard from Tom Davenport on how big data analytics differed from traditional business intelligence. Hal Varian defined for us the type III error, the error that results from asking the wrong questions about data. We also learned data science’s greatest challenge; namely, that without proper education, big data doesn’t become big strategy or big insight, it stays as big data.

MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson likens the impact of big data to the invention of the microscope. Similar to how the advent of the microscope enabled usmoneyball_1 to see things previously too small to be perceived by the human eye, so too does big data enable us to see trends previously too big. But if data science’s impact is so great, why aren’t we learning data analysis in 8th grade, alongside our biology dissections or history lectures?

Most of us already know the movie Moneyball as a pop culture example of the positive impact of analytics on an industry. However, Moneyball was even more insightful in displaying how quantitative ignorance almost prevented its implementation. The hostility the general manager encountered from these baseball veterans wasn’t because the scouts were unwilling to reconsider their intuition; it was because most of them simply had no understanding of analytics. The simple fact is that no one will implement a product he or she does not understand, no matter how potentially successful or revolutionary.

If we could distill the information we gleaned from all of our interviews into a single takeaway, it would be this: data literacy has become a necessity. We are asked to interpret numbers and charts frequently (at this point, perhaps more often than we do the written word) and doing so accurately has become essential. As the chart to the left demonstrates, just as skillful rhetoric can change our beliefs, so too can skillful analysis. Data literacy has become a fundamental skill for all professionals, a skill so essential that we view it as a consumer right of the 21st century.

are you data literateAnd, as such, we have created a platform aimed solely at developing the statistical and programming skills necessary to become data proficient. True data literacy imparts both a statistical understanding and the experience of applying analysis techniques to real data. It requires an understanding of the basic rules of probability and sampling that are utilized in every experiment, along with direct experience manipulating data, whether through Excel or, as is becoming increasingly common, through a programming language such as R.

Who is the data literate professional?

You have an understanding of the nuances of statistics. You have experience munging with data. You are curious, hypothesis-driven, and experimental. You are product-focused and fixated on how data can improve current situations or result in informed action.

About the author:

Brian Liou is the CEO of Leada, a startup founded by recent UC Berkeley grads that helps to educate people in the data analytics and statistics disciplines, and match them up with organizations looking to hire.