The industries growing around big data could be a prime opportunity for Europe to be a leader in this area, but that won’t be possible until some significant skills gaps are addressed.

Publicly funded through the Horizon 2020 program, the European Data Science Academy (EDSA) is an initiative aimed at filling these gaps through education and training new data scientists across Europe.

It’s undeniable that the huge swathes of data being generated today contain valuable information. However, without the skills to make sense of the data and extract vital information, it isn’t of much use.

Led by the UK’s Open University, a slew of higher education institutions and several other organisations across Europe are involved in building the EDSA, including the University of Southampton, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Sweden’s Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, Slovenia’s Jožef Stefan Institute, the Open Data Institute, Germany’s Fraunhofer IAIS research body, the UK’s Persontyle and France’s ideXlab.

“We’re going to define the European curriculum for data scientists,” said Dr Elena Simperl, the technical lead of the EDSA and an associate professor of the Web and Internet Science Group at the University of Southampton, which recently took on a key role at the academy. “We’re going to come up with a proposal for learning objectives, topics that they need to study, forms of learning and create training materials in different languages.”

The EDSA will also publish e-books, host public webinars and online courses like MOOCs, said Simperl. There will also be an in-person aspect to the training, which will accompany the academy’s largely online-based approach.

Additionally, the University of Southampton is slated to launch its new data science master’s program in October. “The EDSA gives us a framework to make sure that whatever we teach in Southampton is in line with what’s going on in the rest of Europe,” she said.

Dr Angi Voss, a data scientist training manager at Fraunhofer IAIS, is also on board with the initiative. “We support the idea of building a European academy for data science, which will continue to act as a network between organisations committed to a high quality and regionally adapted training of data scientists,” she said.

The big data skills gap

For a number of years now, there have been fervent conversations in Europe surrounding the ICT skills gaps across the region. The EDSA is just one of a number of initiatives rolled out to address this.

“Yes, there is a skill gap,” said Edwin Kooge, Managing Partner at MetrixLab Big Data Analytics, a Rotterdam and San Francisco-headquartered data analytics company that employs 10 data scientists, “However, if you offer the right challenging and learning environment with a focus on young professionals, who have a quantitative background, the skill gap can be closed.”

Finding the right balance between education and practical experience is the real challenge for hiring data professionals, said Mattias Paulsson, CEO of Experlytics, a Swedish company bringing data mining to the world of medicine.

Paulsson said the company doesn’t typically have a strict profile in mind for a candidate when recruiting though. “It’s more about the skill-set. For instance, we believe a programmer who could have been studying at the university for five years, taken a PhD and a postdoc may not be a better programmer than someone who’s been programming by him or herself since a very young age,” he expanded.

Many of the professionals the company hires are usually pretty young, but diversely experienced, added Paulsson.

However, Experlytics is currently in the process of filling a senior data science role and is finding it a challenge. “We have about 25 applications but there are only four to five of them that I can take seriously,” said Paulsson.

Catering to European data science needs

“I think in Europe one of the problems is that it’s a much more diverse landscape culturally than in the US so there are learning materials out there, but they’re mostly in English and may not be particularly suited for every sector,” said Simperl, “If you think about how data processing and analysis is done – in biology, it’s a completely different process than in environmental research or social demographics.”

Many of the learning materials developed by the EDSA will be in multiple languages to address this and its research will have both a qualitative and quantitative element, she said.

“We’re going to interview hundreds and hundreds of practitioners to find out what their understanding of data science is, what kind of topics they know they’re missing and make them aware of the topics they’re not aware they’re missing,” explained Simperl.

The research will then trawl through resources, such as LinkedIn, job boards and social media, analysing words and attitudes used as well as skills and qualities that are most sought after. All this collected data will then be used to create an online dashboard with an overview of the industry.

Though the project is still in its early stages, she said it’ll eventually cover trends related to salaries in the industry, the number of data science graduates in a region and more.

Data literacy will have to become much more ubiquitous very soon, added Simperl. “From the interviews we’ve been running so far… We’ve been told there’s a shift in the culture and the way data science is understood in organisations is as important as having the actual technical skills, because organisations still haven’t quite understood it yet. These data skills are becoming just as important as using email and Microsoft Office.”

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