The enormous amounts of available data have become the modern-day goldmines out of which valuable insights, scientific discoveries and actionable knowledge can be extracted - insights that can benefit society as a whole or deliver increased profit and competitive advantage to businesses. This rapidly developing field of 'data science' is transforming much of our daily lives and there is a growing demand for data scientists.

By virtue of being a blend between computer science, modelling and statistics, data science is the craft that transforms data into knowledge and action. In contrast to traditional business intelligence practices which are typically backward-looking, data science is instead focused on generating actionable intelligence based on historical data by identifying patterns and predicting future outcomes.

It is the wizardry of data science that powers your favourite book recommendation engine and your mobile phone's speech recognition system. Every time your phone or camera detects faces in images or Google anticipates your search query, it is the predictive power of data science at work.

Our email inboxes are conveniently protected by spam and our credit cards periodically cease to work because a fraudulent transaction has been detected, all thanks to actionable knowledge produced by data science algorithms and the underlying programming. Many of our medicines have been developed using data science and computational chemistry, while our investment portfolios are increasingly likely to be algorithmically traded by systems using predictive modelling.


New Zealand faces some big challenges and data science promises to contribute innovative solutions. Our health system is under increasing budgetary pressure and continuously under threat of cuts where the intention is to achieve greater efficiency without affecting the quality of patient care. Improving diagnostic methods, targeted treatment and ultimately improved disease prevention are some of the crucial components to realising both better efficiency and quality in the healthcare system - and data science is at the forefront of research into this.

At Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, doctors receive real-time alerts that guide selection of drug therapies based on complex analysis of treatment response data from thousands of other patients with similar clinical and/or genetic traits. This approach promises to realise unprecedented improvements in patient outcomes together with savings in healthcare costs. Using data-driven analysis from extensive patient databases, current medical literature as well as mobile monitoring and patients' real-life experiences with drugs, doctors at Stanford Medicine are moving towards the study into very early diagnosis of diseases before symptoms even develop.

Burglary and theft-related crime make up 45 per cent of offences in New Zealand. In order to tackle such crimes, the Los Angeles Police Department turned to data science and software whose underlying algorithms were originally used to predict earthquake aftershocks. By modifying the software to process historical incidents of crime as well as a continuous feed of real-time data on current criminal events, they devised a system capable of predicting where and when future crimes would occur. By dispatching officers to the predicted locations at a given time, this type of crime reduced significantly.

This may sound like it belongs in the realm of science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters, but the astonishing success of this predictive system has now resulted in its roll-out in numerous other US jurisdictions and there is strong interest internationally. Meanwhile in the UK, Durham Constabulary is deploying a forecasting algorithm designed to predict the likelihood that a suspected criminal will commit another crime based on a number of demographic, personal and offence history inputs.

Just as all sectors of our society stand to gain immensely from applications of data science, the success and failure of businesses is also increasingly becoming dependent on their ability to drive more value out of their data. In today's global market, businesses need to do more than just meet the challenges before them, but instead must be able to accurately anticipate the future.

New Zealand businesses are particularly struggling with how to transform data into intelligence which can be deployed and used for a competitive advantage. Great opportunities lie ahead for New Zealand businesses, especially in the areas of analysis of the purchasing behaviour of customers as well as a greater leverage of their data from customer loyalty programmes.

As technology drives change at an unprecedented speed for the world's workforce, the information sector is one of the few secure jobs of the future. If you are looking for a career change, consider data science, dubbed by the Harvard Business Review as "the sexiest job of the 21st century".