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In San Diego, A Boot Camp For Data Junkies


In San Diego earlier this week, about two dozen people gathered for a two-day boot camp. There was no physical exertion. They were training their brains to make sense of the world of data patterns and algorithms at the University of California, San Diego's data mining boot camp. Natasha Balac leads the program. And she says it's attracting all kinds of professionals.

NATASHA BALAC: We have a variety of people taking these boot camps. We have people from IT and utilities to people from HR and computational science or casinos and anything in between really.

RATH: Now, we'll try to skip past the technicalities of algorithms or how predictive analysis works. Can you just tell us what do people leave this boot camp being able to do with their skills?

BALAC: They're able to take a data set that they might be doing in their professional or personal life and apply these algorithms to find patterns, rules, associations or some unexpected insight from the data.

RATH: So if someone, say, comes in who's an HR specialist, what could they come out of this knowing how to do?

BALAC: They might be able to look at their data and find how to make unhappy employees happier. Not everybody's interested in a higher salary. Some people really value an extra three days of vacation a year. And you can take the data you have of the behavior of the previous employees and the current employees and be able to find this kind of insight to take proactive actions before your employees or your customers get upset.

And it really is everywhere. Looking for patterns in large amounts of data and then being able to find insight that you can take some action on really happens everywhere. If you check your Facebook page and you look at the news feed, there is predictive analytics behind it. Facebook uses these algorithms to try and find the news you personally would be most interested in. So they will look at your close group of friends and family. They will look at what kinds of news did you click on before.

Most marketing companies will use them. All the pop-ups you have in your browsers when you're searching are based on your previous behavior. If you go to your local grocery store, the coupons that you get will be targeted specifically for you.

RATH: Has it got to the point now that if you're running a business, you need to either have command of data mining and predictive analytics or have somebody on staff who's a specialist?

BALAC: It's starting to be that way. I think the predictive analytics or data science will become a department of its own. And many organizations already are creating those. It is going to be something every organization is going to need as much as they need IT.

RATH: And is that why you've started this school and are there other schools like yours?

BALAC: Absolutely yes. I have actually been teaching a data mining certificate program for about 12 years. Twelve years ago, we had to cancel classes because we wouldn't have more than five students. We now have two sections of 60 plus. We're starting a Masters program at UCSD.

Some people really don't want certificates or degrees. They really just want to learn practical, hands-on, how to apply these techniques. And that's really what prompted these two-day boot camps.

RATH: A couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review called the data scientist the sexiest job of the 21st century. Why is it so hot?

BALAC: Because there are not enough people to do the job and because the job is really turning into a very interesting, creative and cool job. Data scientists need to have several different types of skills. You need to have those technical skills, machine learning and statistics, to be able to manipulate the data and find those patterns. But that's just not enough. In order to be a successful data scientist, you need to understand the business, ask the right questions, be able to be creative of how you treat your data in order to find those patterns. And this is why it's so difficult to find people who can do that job.

RATH: Natasha Balac is the director of the Predictive Analytic Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego. Thanks so much.

BALAC: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.