Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Joy of Stats, Operations Research, Economics, and Computer Science

This morning, I went with my daughter to the Cushman Market and Cafe in North Amherst for some delicious breakfast. Cushman is an institution and it is always fun to see who else is there -- from the runners to neighbors to colleagues to the writers and the techies and entrepreneurs in front of their laptops.

This morning while eating pancakes, eggs, and yummy blueberry muffins, two of our favorite colleagues, who are economists, stopped by, along with their son, who had also graduated from Deerfield Academy, my daughter's high school alma mater. And the conversation soon journeyed to travels in Europe and when I would be back to Sweden (soon) and how much I enjoyed my time on my sabbatical at the University of Gothenburg.

I was then asked whether I had seen Joy of Stats, in which Dr. Hans Rosling, who is a medical doctor and Professor of Public Health Science at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, talks about the importance of statistics through the ages. I had not realized until I got back home that I had seen an interview on Swedish TV with Dr. Rosling and had enjoyed his energy and sense of humor as he spoke about the importance of visualization in statistics and of data and various applications, especially in healthcare. He has spoken at TED multiple times.

So, this morning, having sent off a draft of a revision of a paper to a collaborator who is thousands of miles away, I decided to view Joy of Stats. It is a mesmerizing video, complete with  scenes of Stockholm, San Francisco, and beyond,  set to a background of great music and commentary by Dr. Rosling. Along with. interviews, including one with a researcher at Google, make for a very dynamic and informative video. I enjoyed how the great work of Florence Nightingale, renowned for her contributions to nursing, also influenced statistics and data visualization. The mapping of types of crime in San Francisco was also really interesting.

I do believe, however, that the biggest advances in big data and analytics will come from synergies across statistics, operations research, economics, and computer science. The video did emphasize machine learning for language translation, as is being done at Google, but we need also more emphasis on prescriptive analytics, where operations research excels. We may know where crimes occur but, given limited resources, how should the police be allocated and where? Also, without the understanding of economics, one cannot effectively capture individuals' and groups' behavior.and motivations.

Nevertheless, it is great to see kindred spirits, such as Professor Rosling,  who get excited about the real world, about numbers, and making sense of it all in order to help humanity and who can communicate the joy behind scientific discovery in such an eloquent and entertaining way.