Social policy students in the University of Ulster’s distance learning programme are gaining career-building data analysis skills on a course that uses IBM’s SPSS statistics software.
Gillian Robinson is a professor of social research at the university, based in Derry (also known as Londonderry) in Northern Ireland, and much of her work has centred on conflict in divided societies. She is the director of ARK (Access Research Knowledge), a website that provides access to social and political material on Northern Ireland. ARK carries out surveys such as the linked series Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, the Young Life and Times Survey and Kids’ Life and Times Survey. ARK also oversees the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) Web service that provides source material and databases of information related to “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1968 to the present.
Some of the students on the survey research and quantitative methods course that Robinson teaches also have experience with conflict situations in developing countries. “The students are great,” Robinson said. Some are from Ireland or the UK, some are from other parts of the EU, and still others are from Sri Lanka, Liberia, Cameroon and China. Backgrounds include the Red Cross and charity field workers in the fields of women refugees and poverty, she said.
The newest student cohort is a typically diverse group, she said. But what most of the students have in common is they are grateful for the practical nature of the course work. With SPSS, the students can work on large data sets, including those in ARK. “It is practical statistical analysis using large current and contemporary data sets,” Robinson said.
Some of the students come from arts backgrounds, most have been working for some time and all feel the need to know about how to do research with practical tools. In the province itself, SPSS is widely used in government departments, so there is an advantage for the local students looking for jobs upon graduation.
Robinson said she has been using SPSS for 20 years. “It’s been consistent and well resourced; and the online materials are very helpful.” It is though, she stressed, just one package in the market.
Data analytics skills gap
Earlier this year, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report titled Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity, which trumpeted a twofold skills gap in the world economy at the levels of data analytics specialists and data savvy managers.
“I think it is true [that there is a gap]. There has been a tendency across the university sector to do less practical skills teaching at the undergraduate level because it is [more] time-consuming and demanding," Robinson said. "There is a lack of data analysis skills across the social science disciplines, with psychology and economics partial exceptions to that. But we are not producing enough quantitative social scientists.”
Robinson said that Ulster’s teaching is more about producing data savvy managers than hard-core data analysts. Stephen Gold, who leads IBM’s Academic Initiative globally and is vice president of worldwide marketing at SPSS, said the lack of data-savvy managers is the more serious issue. “The McKinsey study is interesting for the idea that the skills gap is not only of the deep analytical professionals [190,000 in the US, according to McKinsey]," he said, "the more telling number is a shortage of 1.5 million of [US] data-savvy managers.”
IBM has said it is collaborating with academic institutions such as University of Ulster, IAE Aix-en-Provence and EDC business school, in France, and Yale, Fordham, Columbia and DePaul, in the US, to extend analytics skills to graduates.
“The reason why big data is important for organizations,” Gold said, “is the realization that there are ‘golden nuggets’ [of information]. It’s not only the volume or the velocity of the data but the nature of it. But organizations are finding they don’t have the requisite skills. They don’t have the individuals. Yet they constantly see referenced in the press organizations that are utilizing and capitalizing big data to gain efficiencies and better productivity.”
Gold argued that non-IT and non-finance business professionals also need to get a grip on analytics for big data. “Heads of operations and marketing need to have an understanding of analytics. Operations needs to understand predictive maintenance around supply chain interruptions. Marketing needs to understand how to build customer propensity models.”
The IBM Academic Initiative offers access to software and data sets for free, certification programmes in the firm’s technologies and “collaborative programmes on projects,” Gold said.
Gold expects the skills gap problem to become critical in the next 12 to 24 months. “From a business point of view, we will reach critical proportion," he said.
“And the sector does not matter. The early adopters are in finance, insurance, health care and consumer products, but we see process manufacturing, oil and gas coming up.”
Gold said that he has advised his own children that [statistical analysis] is a skill set that will serve you well regardless of your chosen vocation.” And, echoing Robinson: “we see individuals returning to education in analytics.”