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Omaha Magazine

Essential Role of Data Scientists on Display During Normal and Not-so-Normal Times

Jul 10, 2020 04:31PM ● By T S
Dr. Mary Dobransky and Catie Williams, Bellevue University

Although data science might not sound like something that’s “essential” to your life, chances are you’re relying on it daily.

That’s because almost as fast as data about the COVID-19 outbreak has become available, it’s being aggregated, analyzed and visualized by data scientists to tell a story that matters to citizens in countries all over the globe. In fact, according to ZDNet, a leading business technology news site, the novel coronavirus outbreak and COVID-19 outbreak data set may be the most visualized ever.

Preparing data scientists with applied expertise is the role of Bellevue University’s new 100% online BS in Data Science.  Talented data scientists will continue to serve as the critical link between the “big data” that exists in healthcare and other industries like retail, banking and manufacturing, and the rest of us. 

“Today’s organizations are absolutely inundated with data,” Dr. Mary Hawkins, President of Bellevue University, said. “But data doesn’t have value unless businesses have skilled employees who are able to provide the kind of insights that turn that data into better decisions and strategies.”

Catie Williams, Program Director for Bellevue University’s new undergraduate data science
degree agreed. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of a current issue that the field of data science could help,” she said.

Business and industry aren’t the only ones to benefit from data science techniques. Consumers do, as well, said Williams, who also works in a senior data and analytics role at InEight, a Kiewit-owned company. As proof, she cites a metric known as the “Waffle House index” that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) uses to determine how much destruction a hurricane has left in its wake to adjust the agency’s disaster response.

Another example of data science in action are the “flatten the curve” graphics that have been widely shared via social and news media. 

“It would be harder to understand the impact (of COVID-19) if a visual like the curve of predicted cases wasn’t being circulated,” Williams said. “However, the challenge most are going to face right now is seeing lots of varying images, articles, statistics, and not knowing where the right information is coming from.”

The answer to all of the noise? Reliable data that provides context and meaning. Achieving that standard of quality takes “graduates who know how to analyze data, manage it at scale, and transform it into a powerful tool,” Dr. Mary Dobransky, Dean of BU’s College of Science and Technology, said.

Those skills are in demand according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects that jobs for computer and information research scientists will increase 19% by 2026.

Fortunately, in BU’s 100% online degree program, “students can expect to learn information and skills that can be immediately used when they start a job,” Dr. Dobransky added, “conducting research, using project management methodologies, creating algorithms and doing programming.using tools like Python and SQL.”

But, for Williams, a North Omaha native who became the first in her family to earn a college degree, the most gratifying aspect of the data science field is simply what she describes as the “light bulb” moment. 

“I love seeing when someone realizes that the standards, the business process, the data collection, the need for integrated information, is all worth it,” Williams said. 

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