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Oh, the places you'll go... with data analytics

Written by Steven Stern, Professor of Data Science, Bond Business School.
With fond acknowledgement of the literary works of Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr Seuss.

"Congratulations! Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose."

When I was a high school student, I was a sports fanatic. I played Little League baseball, tennis against my sisters and mother, and golf against my dad. I was on my school's American football and basketball teams, and even had a brief stint as my school’s representative in the pole vault – brief indeed, as I don’t ever recall clearing any poles with my vaults!

I constantly watched my favourite professional athletes: Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny ‘The Snake’ Stabler and Oakland Athletics (and eventually New York Yankees) outfielders Reggie ‘Mr October’ Jackson and Rickey ‘Man of Steal’ Henderson. Most of all, I marvelled at the smoothness of San Antonio Spurs guard George ‘The Iceman’ Gervin. My dream at the age of 16 was to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and to have some sort of cool nickname. Unfortunately, while Dr Seuss was correct that I had “feet in my shoes,” they were attached at the bottom of a relatively short body, passed down to me by parents with a family tree that had no recorded male relative taller than 6 feet.

On the upside, Dr Seuss also correctly knew that I had brains in my head. I was good at mathematics and problem solving from a very young age. I loved crossword puzzles, mazes, codes, and logic problems, and was addicted to things like Rubik's cube, wire-knot puzzles, brain teasers, and optical illusions. So, while I practiced my jump shot and dribbling skills every morning in Years 11 and 12, I also used the afternoons to study my maths and work on puzzles. I even spent a whole summer vacation working for my dad, a professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Centre in San Antonio, who did research on type II diabetes. I helped him enter and analyse his data on his most recently acquired newfangled contraption, the TI SR-52 – a Texas Instruments programmable calculator, the 1970s version of a personal computer!

I went on to university and studied mathematics and statistics. While I was there, the field of formal computer science was emerging from its ivory tower, in much the same way as data science is in today’s academic landscape. Computer science evolved from a purely academic discipline into an early version of its modern self, beginning with the advent of the first IBM PCs, and then accelerating with Apple's revolution, the Macintosh. By the time I'd graduated and taken my first job at a data analysis consulting firm, I'd made myself into a competent enough programmer to complement my mathematical and statistical knowledge.

The few short years I spent working in a data analytics consulting role taught me a huge number of things; most notably that if you were a trustworthy data analyst, you could work with exceptional scientists doing fascinating work across a broad array of subjects. In that short span, I participated in projects of all sizes and scales. I modelled everything from the physics behind ski equipment to the factors causing the Pontiac Fiero (an aptly, if ironically, named sports car) to occasionally burst into flames.

Mostly, though, I worked with the newly created biostatistics and epidemiology group, analysing large data sets to assess health risks to the general population, whether they were from lead paint, asbestos, or even second-hand smoke. After a while in this role, and perhaps due to a misalignment of values with the company I was working for, I decided to return to academia, obtaining my doctorate and setting off on my own personal data science path. In doing so, I learned very quickly – to quote Dr Seuss once again – “out there, things can happen and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsy as you.”

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Meet Professor of Data Science Steven Stern

Throughout three decades and counting of multidisciplinary, collaborative data analytic work, I have been privileged to be involved in an array of interesting projects across a wide arc of disciplines. These have ranged from biology, geology, and medicine, all the way through to forensic science, audit accounting, law, information technology, and frankly, everything in between. Additionally, I have been privileged to engage with teams that run the full gamut of size and structure. This includes large state and federal government departments such as the Australian Government Clean Energy Regulator and the Queensland Department of Health, to non-government and not-for-profit organisations like the Independent Schools Council of Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport.

I have also worked with smaller commercial organisations like HealthCare Logic and the Gold Coast Suns AFL Club, all the way down to individual researchers and academic colleagues at universities around the globe. This includes my own uncle, an emeritus professor of classics at The City University of New York, who I worked with on authorship confirmation of ancient texts. Perhaps the most rewarding and serendipitous working relationship I’ve had is with my father – in a call-back to those early days entering his data for him, it was a full circle moment to collaborate with him on developing easy and accurate screening tests for detecting insulin resistance, a precursor to type II diabetes.

Throughout all this, though, I never lost my love of sports, which led me to the most celebrated collaboration of my career with Frank Duckworth, Tony Lewis, and the International Cricket Council (ICC). A journey that started on a dare of sorts from some Australian friends in the mid-1990s ended with me taking over the ICC custodianship of the official ‘rain-rule’ for limited-overs cricket, and eventually having my name attached to it in October of 2014. That honour fulfilled a childhood dream to be involved in the world of professional sport, one conceived as a high school student shooting free throws at the rusting hoop hung on the garage. This dream culminated in a way I could never have imagined at its inception. I was involved not as a player but as a consultant, and this simply wouldn’t have been possible without my knowledge of data science. Obviously, I was also fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, but as Louis Pasteur famously said, “fortune favours the prepared mind.”

To me, this is the moral of my story: there is no professional endeavour in the modern age that cannot benefit from the considered and effective implementation of information management, data analysis, and projection. All you need to do is dream and be prepared, and you can have a lifelong involvement in whatever passion you hold in your heart. So, put a data analytics degree in your kitbag, dream your wild dreams, and of course, listen to Dr Seuss, whose verse concludes:

"And will you succeed?

Yes! You will indeed!

(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)"

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