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The rise of the citizen data scientist

Katherine Noyes | April 8, 2016
The concept is gaining ground, but not everyone is convinced: 'Would you trust your teeth to a citizen dentist?' one analyst asks.

When Mark Pickett was a captain in the Marines, he knew he couldn't be there to make every decision for his soldiers.

"You can't rehearse every scenario, and there will be times when you can't communicate," he explained. "You want to groom your Marines to be able to rely on themselves and their unit."

It's not so different in the business world in this era of big data.

Now senior director for online analytics and business intelligence at Sears, Pickett has been an early champion of the so-called citizen data scientist movement, by which employees in multiple parts of an organization are empowered with the analytics tools and skills to get the answers they need from their data.

"The business understands the business more deeply than we ever could," he said. "We're trying to coach these people up and provide them with the data they need to craft their own reporting and do their own analyses."

In Sears' case, the motivation is particularly strong. Though a retail business overall, the company is in many ways a conglomeration of numerous vertical businesses, each focusing on different product types.

"We have a very multicategory sort of business, from lawn and garden to appliances to clothing and jewelry to mattresses," Pickett said. "My team is built to support all of them, but we'll never understand their businesses the way they do."

By curating the right tools -- in Sears' case, Platfora's big-data analytics platform for Hadoop -- Pickett's group aims to enable businesspeople to answer 80 percent of their data questions themselves. More than 300 trained citizen data scientists at the company are now using those tools to generate thousands of data-analysis reports each week without any assistance.

"The only reason we'd touch one is if someone had questions, or needed data added," Pickett said.

A new generation of tools

Sears may have a particularly pressing need by virtue of the diverse nature of its business, but companies of all kinds are feeling the acute shortage of trained data scientists today. Even for those lucky enough to snag such a professional, "janitorial" tasks such as data preparation are still taking up an inordinate proportion of those workers' time.

Empowering businesspeople to do much of the analysis themselves frees up highly trained data scientists to focus on the things that require their expertise -- or so the thinking goes.

Part of what's making it possible is the growing set of powerful self-service tools available on the market today, putting capabilities like artificial intelligence within reach for virtually anyone.

"Companies have more and more data," said Lukas Biewald, CEO and founder at data-focused crowdsourcing site CrowdFlower.


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