January 8, 2015

Kindergarten: The New Big Data Training Ground

Alex Woodie

A good education, it is often said, starts at home. And according to a new report, big data training should start in kindergarten.

The earlier that educators start laying the foundation for the deep analytical skills required for the new data-driven economy, the better positioned tomorrow’s workforce will be to match the looming demand for data scientists. That’s the gist of a new report issued by the Oceans of Data Institute, which cited the 2011 McKinsey report that outlined the potential shortfall of 190,000 data scientists by 2018.

Specifically, the ODI issued an “occupation skills profile” for “big data-enabled specialists,” which can be loosely thought of as data scientists and other professionals who work with big data. ODI’s profile defined a big-data-enabled specialist as “an individual who wrangles and analyzes large and/or complex data sets to enable new capabilities including discovery, decision support, and improved outcomes.”

The ODI, which is backed by the 50-year-old Education Development Center that’s funded by a consortium of public and private institutions, convened a panel of 150 big data experts from Google, Microsoft, NASA, and George Mason University to understand what kinds of skills the next generation of data scientists will need.

Big-data-enabled specialists must be proficient at a range of tasks, including: defining problems and articulating questions; developing deep knowledge of data sources; developing methods and tools; and staying current on emerging technologies, data types, and methods.

According to the report, which was issued in mid-December, big data professionals will need to call on a range of skills and abilities, including: managing data resources according to legal and ethical obligations; protecting data; accurately determine confidence levels and limitations by measuring precision and accuracy; and having the ability to make recommendations based on data and to tell a “data story.”

In addition to hard skills like statistics, math, and programming, the ODI was surprised when its panel of experts highlighted the importance of soft skills, such as critical thinking skills and being open minded and a lifelong learner.

While most five- and six-year-olds spend their kindergarten days learning to color within the lines and sit still during circle time, it’s apparently not too early to sneak in a little primer on outlier detection or an intro to k-means clustering.

Kindergarten teachers are clearly among the intended targets for ODI’s big-data-enabled-specialist skills profile. “It can help K–12 educators and policymakers understand the specific skills and behaviors that need to be cultivated and emphasized in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, so that graduates are prepared to make evidence-based decisions and participate in a data-driven economy,” the ODI says.

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