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MSc Course in Data Science launched at Dundee University

2013 January 31

“The success of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, not to mention Wall Street firms and industries from manufacturing and retail to healthcare, is increasingly driven by better tools for extracting meaning from very large quantities of data. ‘Data Scientist’ is now the hottest job title in Silicon Valley.” – Tim O’Reilly

As pointed out by Tim, we are surrounded by Data Science, also known as big data. I have now found out that there is a new MSc course in Data Science taught at the University of Dundee. Mark Whitehorn, the founder of the course, was kind enough to answer some questions.

Hi, Mark, I hear you’ve just launched a new MSc course in Data Science at the University of Dundee.  So, first questions first: what’s data science?

Very cool at the moment.  It’s a term we’re hearing more and more these days, and, as with many new terms, different people define it in different ways, and those ways are evolving even as we speak.  In a nutshell, a data scientist is someone with well-developed skills in analysing data, especially in analysing large amounts of data that does not fit readily into traditional tabular database structures.  That kind of data is often called Big Data, another term much in the news.

Is it a full-time or a part-time course?

It can be either.  You can take it as a full-time course of study lasting one year, or as a part-time one lasting two.  Most of our current students take the part-time option because they are already in employment and the course is designed to accommodate this.  Each year the part-timers attend two separate weeks of lectures in Dundee, plus about 2 extra days for examinations.  So the total time they have to spend in Dundee is 12 days per year; the rest of the time is home-based study with assignments, phone tutorials and a project.  Full-timers must be based in Dundee and attend four full weeks of lectures and also do the assignments, tutorials etc.  Both part and full time students also do a research project.

Why now and why Dundee?

As well being a Professor at the University, I also work as a consultant and my commercial experience tells me that businesses are crying out for people who can extract useful information from huge data sets; information covering performance, trends, behaviours, predictions, any scrap of information that can help a business to stay ahead of the curve.  With my commercial hat on I constantly see the need for people who are trained in data science all the time; so as an academic it made perfect sense to set up the course!

Furthermore in the School of Computing at the University of Dundee we have been running a very successful MSc course in Business Intelligence since 2010.  It has been very well received by the students, about 75 of them so far, and all of our full-time graduates have found employment in the BI field.  The part-timers already had jobs and many of them have moved to better jobs.  Launching the Data Science course seemed a natural progression and has already proved popular: we had about three times more applicants than places available for the January 2013 intake.

Finally the research work we do at Dundee has involved big data and data science since about 2007; in other words, we aren’t just talking about it, we’ve been doing it for at least five years.  We do actually know how to do it for real!

Anything else you’d like to say about data science?

I think it is complex to define fully but we have tried to give the flavour of the sorts of skills we expect our students to possess by the time they graduate.

General skills include:
  • excellent analytical capabilities
  • machine learning
  • statistics, maths  and data mining
  • algorithm development, code writing
  • data visualisation
  • understanding multi-dimensional database design and implementation
Specific skills include:

Technologies to handle big data

  • Hadoop and related technologies
  • MapReduce and its implementation on differing software platforms
  • NoSQL databases

Knowledge of languages such as

  • SQL, MDX , R
  • Functional and OOP languages such as Erlang and Java
General characteristics include:
  • Interdisciplinary interests
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Insatiable curiosity

Insatiable curiosity – I like that!

Yes, and it’s really an excellent indicator of the sort of person who will excel as a data scientist.  It denotes something rather like the old meaning of the hacker mentality.  Not someone who breaks into systems but a hacker in the sense of someone driven to understand, to explore all the options, to try all the permutations.  Someone who works on a problem and suddenly notices it is three in the morning, someone who has survived for days on flat food.

Duncan Ross, Director of Data Sciences at Teradata, has said that “The first and most important trait is curiosity. Insane curiosity. In many walks of life evolution selects against the kind of person who decides to find out what happens ‘if I push that button’.  Data Science selects for it.”  I think he’s absolutely right.

Any final thoughts before we wrap it up?

It has been great fun and very rewarding to run the BI course and I am sure the DS course will be equally so, not just for me and my colleagues, but also for the students.  I’ll give the last word to some of those who have already graduated from the BI course:

“Enrolling on the Business Intelligence Master’s Degree at the University of Dundee has been the single most important thing I have done to further my career since starting to work in IT 18 years ago. Not only have I thoroughly enjoyed the course and project work but I have met some great people and established a strong network of friends who work in the industry. Not to mention landing a dream job as a Data Scientist with Teradata at the end of it!” Chris Hillman

“It was hard work at times, but the reward you get as always, is proportionate to what you put into it. And it was fun.  Given the opportunity, I’d definitely do it again – two years of my time well invested, with no regrets and some great adventures on the way.”  Jon Reade

“The style is never dogmatic and always open-minded allowing everyone to input their own ideas in this fluid area of the business and scientific world.”  Gordon Meyer

“I feel it was a great decision to relocate from my home country for this amazing year that provided me sound knowledge and further inspiration.”  István Poprócsi

“I was delighted when I finally completed the course and was awarded an MSc. with distinction – but at the same time felt rather sad that this great experience had come to an end.  I’d learned so much and loved every minute of it.”  Andy Hogg


Mark whitehorn cropped & flippedProf. Mark Whitehorn specializes in the areas of data science, analytics, business intelligence (BI) and Big Data.

On the academic side, Mark holds the Chair of Analytics at the University of Dundee where he designed and runs two Masters courses, one in Business Intelligence, the other in Data Science. He also works with the prestigious Lamond labs. applying data science to proteomics.

In addition Mark works as a consultant to national and international companies, designing analytical systems. He is also a well-recognized commentator on the computer world, publishing articles, white papers and 11 books on database and BI technology.

For relaxation he collects and restores old cars, which keeps him out of too much trouble. He only wears a tie under duress and unashamedly belongs to the beard-and-sandals school of computing.  (And he doesn’t take life as seriously as this photo suggests!)





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