14:08 PM

Data Driven


By Mike Emery

The next time you’re watching a blockbuster film, like “Black Panther” or “Avengers: Infinity War,” take a moment to consider that data analysis and data science were involved in the movie’s release.

While data scientists aren’t super heroes, they play a crucial role in getting costumed characters to the big screen. Data is collected from past film releases within certain genres. It’s compared against data from competing films, and algorithms are designed around budgets, audience demographics and box office revenue. This information is then assembled to determine a movie’s release date and, ultimately, help predict its success.

Of course, the film industry is just one example of how data science and data analytics impact business decisions and lives. Data analysis and data science factor into energy, healthcare, insurance, education, banking, finance and countless other industries. In fact, a recent IBM study suggests that there will be three million job openings for data professionals by 2020.

At the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), two innovative programs within the College of Sciences & Technology are preparing students to fill those positions. The College launched its Master of Data Analytics (MSDA) program in 2015. And earlier this year, the Bachelor of Science in Data Science (BSDS) program kicked off. Both programs are the first of their kind in the region.

“We live in a data-driven world,” said Dr. Akif Uzman, dean of the College of Sciences & Technology. “Our programs in data science and data analytics brings advanced quantitative training to an array of students.”

Uzman helped lead the charge to create the MSDA program. He connected industry leaders with professors for on-campus workshops to gain insights on how students could prepare for careers in the evolving field of data analysis.

“In these workshops, we received industry feedback indicating a need for professionals from within their respective industries who could effectively analyze big data,” said Dr. Ermelinda DeLaVina, director of the MSDA Program and associate dean for the College of Sciences & Technology. “As a result, current MSDA student backgrounds span a variety of academic areas, such as business, natural and social sciences, engineering, computer science, statistics and mathematics.”

Recognizing the emergence of data science in society, Dr. Ryan Pepper, chair of the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, with departmental colleagues Drs. Vasilis G. Zafiris and J. Patrick King, created the Bachelor of Science in data science. Pepper consulted with the city’s industry leaders from companies such as Noble Energy and Schlumberger. He shared curriculum samples with them that met their approval. UHD’s data science curriculum was also in line with recommendations made by the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) in its report on data science in higher education.

“All of it really came together,” Pepper said. “We spent many months developing this curriculum, and that hard work was validated by industry support and a close match with PCMI’s guidelines.”

The BSDS program is designed to immerse students in the data science pipeline—identifying and mathematically modeling problems; gathering, sorting and analyzing data relevant to those problems; visualizing and presenting the results of this analysis; and making mathematically valid and ethically sound decisions based upon the findings.

Shawn Olichwier is among UHD’s first group of BSDS students. With a background in computer science and math, the degree sounded like a perfect fit for him.

“With the amount of data in the world right now … and even in our pockets, there has to be a way to handle it and learn from it, Olichwier said. This program puts UHD on the cutting edge. I’m basically a math, stats and computer science major rolled into one. I’m learning a variety of skills to apply in the workforce. The possibilities are endless with this degree.”

Uzman concurs that the MSDA and BSDS will provide students with a vast set of fluid competencies that are needed across a variety of industries while positioning UHD as an institution, which addresses the needs of a demanding industry.

“These programs reflect UHD’s commitment to providing a 21st century education and training to all of Houston’s citizens,” Uzman said. “They represent a growing nucleus of programs that cross traditional academic disciplines and allow our students to apply analytical reasoning to solve the region’s complex problems.”

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.