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Sexy Yes, But Data Analysts Must Learn Moral Code

question-marksMany of today’s best universities are seeing data analysis as a North Star leading to new curriculum development. But in order to reach their goal successfully, they will need a moral compass.

This thought struck me while reading the latest report on the emerging industry of data science and its need for professionals – what Harvard Business Review called “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” According to the story, in The New York Times, dozens of programs have been developed at major universities, including Columbia, Stanford, New York University, Northwestern, Syracuse, University of California at Irvine and Indiana University. I’m proud to say that my alma mater, Queen’s University, has launched a Masters in Management Analytics and easily filled the class for the first year of the program.

This big trend is in direct correlation to the emergence of Big Data, and all the headlines that go with it. Last September I had written about the pending demand for data experts in the loyalty-marketing field. Among the figures cited: 97 percent of companies with revenue of more than $100 million are pursuing expertise in business analytics, according to Forrester Research. Yet the data analytics field is forecast to fall short of professionals by 2018, with an estimated 190,000 qualified data scientist positions left vacant at that time.

Colleges are scrambling to attract and educate students fast enough to meet this burgeoning demand. At North Carolina State, all 84 of last year’s graduates were offered jobs, the program’s director told the Times. The average salary exceeded $89,000.

If demand equals sexy, then Harvard Business Review is right. But less emphasized, and more important, is the need to handle the data with a principled conscience. That may not sound sexy, but consider the power data yields; it could turn a person’s life completely upside down if mishandled.

As the story describes it, “Using data to decide someone’s eligibility for a line of credit or health insurance, or even recommending who they friend on Facebook, can affect their lives.”

So how do these universities build the models that balance these considerations while sorting out those who want to solely let the data speak for itself? The Times story answered it in one sentence: “Ethics classes address these questions.”

It’s almost a throwaway line, but it resonated. Not a single person should have access to data without understanding the rationale for having it, the need to care for it, and the implications of mismanaging it. There are tremendous opportunities for both companies and customers that arise from sharing information and improving the way we create relevant interactions. But the industry is simply expanding too fast to cut corners, and our brands, reputations and balance sheets are at risk if we don’t ensure evenness between what is possible and what is right.

This new frontier of professional possibilities may have been brought to us by Big Data. But the inclusion of formalized ethics courses, designed specifically to address the considerations and possible repercussions of data use, is a good step forward. Combine that with an ongoing dialog around best practices, and we should have the ingredients to help us all make the move from Big Data toward good data.

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