Big Data – What’s the Fuss All about, Anyway?

data analytics

This is a post by Dennis Ang, director at the Nanyang Polytechnic School of Information Technology. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 14 March 2018.

Whether in the news or in conversations with friends, you will find the words big data or data analytics popping up quite frequently. Among all the tech trends emerging in the business world and our daily lives, the use of data by organisations to make better decisions is one of the most significant.

So, what is data analytics exactly? Every time you browse a website, buy an item from an online store, or tap a credit card to make a purchase, you generate information that is captured by the organisation you are dealing with – whether it is the retailer, credit card company or owner of the website.

With so much activity being done digitally these days, consumers are generating a huge amount of data about themselves; from what books they like to read to what time of the day they take public transport.

So, really, why is data such a big deal?

Well, this information is a gold mine to companies who want to know how to better service you or offer you products you are more likely to buy. Ride hailing app Grab, for instance, uses the data generated by their users to better understand when and where demand for their cars are high during the day. With this information they can direct more of their drivers to high demand areas in real-time. (PS: This means that if you regularly “Grab” to work, you are more likely to be able to get to the office on time.)

Hospitals and other healthcare organisations are also using data to identify patients who are more susceptible to certain types of diseases in order to reach out to them with preventative measures. This will reduce the number of patient admissions and ease the strain on these organisations’ capacity.

These are just two sectors where the technology is making a significant impact. But big data tools are being used across a broad range of industries, and are also a key part of the Singapore Government’s Smart Nation initiative that aims to provide better public services to Singaporeans through technology.

For instance, a study using data by the Infocomm Media Development Authority found that there are two distinct groups of senior citizens who visit libraries in Singapore.

One group is made up of “retiree hobbyists” who regularly visit libraries in the central part of Singapore to borrow books on their hobbies. The other group is grandparents who visit libraries in mature estates to borrow books with their grandchildren. This insight helped the libraries to better plan what books they would carry, as well as activities tailored for the two groups.

Now that you know about data, would you be keen on a job in the industry?

No surprises there, but the big data trend has led to a rise in demand for professionals who are able to make sense of the data collected, and translate it into useful information that decisions can be based on. Reflecting its increasing importance in our economy, data analytics is one of eight priority areas in a new SkillsFuture Series of training programmes.

And what are some of these jobs? Can anyone enter?

There are several ways that a person interested in data analytics can contribute to an organisation.

Most people think of data scientists when they think of people who work in this field. These are usually professionals with programming skills. There are a host of other roles that do not require such highly specialised abilities, including business analysts who aim to improve an organisation’s processes, or digital marketers who use data to better engage their target audiences.

With some knowledge of statistics and “visualisation” tools that can help turn raw data into useful insights, almost anyone can consider a career in data analytics, or incorporate such skills into their existing job role.

The million-dollar question is, how do you embark on this much-sought-after career?

There are also many courses available for working adults, who want to embark on a career in data analytics. The SkillsFuture Series, for instance, offers courses in the subject at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. These are conducted at various institutions like Nanyang Polytechnic and NTUC LearningHub.

At the basic level, participants will learn the concepts of data management, and the common techniques used in the work environment, as well as the presentation of analysis results using analytical software.

The advanced course, meanwhile, will introduce participants to analytics scenarios for different industries and cover methods for evaluating and improving machine learning models.

Big data has become a permanent feature in our society, whether through helping companies improve their performance, or public sector agencies deliver better services to citizens. And as the tools to manage and analyse data become more powerful, new applications and the skills to use them are likely to emerge.

This will throw up many good job opportunities for Singaporeans who want to embark on a career that is very much part of the new digital economy. Taking a relevant course can equip you with the relevant skills to land a job in data analytics or start using its techniques to help you in your existing job.

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