Sunday, February 1, 2015

Data Science versus the librarians

OK, so maybe the title of this blog post is overly dramatic, but it describes where I am right now.  Currently, along with my librarian wife, I'm attending the American Library Association mid winter conference in Chicago. 

So far, the biggest fun of the conference is a blizzard warning and an 18 inch snow prediction, which could be expected when you hold a conference in Chicago in late January.  Related to my job and this blog however, there seems to be a lot of interest in STEM and analytics in the library community. 

On Friday night, we were invited to a small dinner put on by a vendor selling STEM education products.  The product was interesting, and would have likely appealed to the grade-school version of me.  The vendor pointed out the US was lagging behind in STEM fields, and that this should worry educators and librarians etc... 

Interestingly in the presentation, the vendor asserted that the failure of the United States in math and science fields was actually a simple failure of literacy.  I disagree with this notion, the causes of the US failure in these fields go much deeper into our society and the basics of our education system.  I wrote this off, however, as specialists diagnosing a systemic problem as a problem that they know the most about.

It was good to know, though, that educators are taking steps to fix our issues in math and science though.  Later in the evening, we were asked to go around the room, and talk about our professional lives.  I mentioned a project I'm working on to voice-to-text translate all audio from phone calls my company makes, and then use Latent Dirichlet Allocation to categorize, then predict future customer behavior.  

The librarians seemed bored with my first anecdote.  So I mentioned that in my last search for candidates, of the 10 most qualified candidates for the position, only one was American.  There was an audible gasp.  Hey, if the stats from the earlier presentation didn't get their attention, maybe I did.

The rest of the conference is basically me chatting with and occasionally drinking with librarians.  There are a lot of vendors here selling "big data" products that are actually just repackaging census data and, if they're more sophisticated, adding a GIS overlay.  Most companies do this fairly poorly (though one, whose name I can't remember, impressed me last year).  As I mentioned in a prior post, I could probably put one of these products together in a day with a junior analyst. 

I have talked to a few librarians actually trying to make a difference in technology.  Some try with kids and have cool "maker spaces" in their libraries where kids can play with 3d printers, program robots, and learn Python.  Others were trying to use data to improve the operational effectiveness of their organizations... though most of these programs were just in their infancy.  It will be interesting to see where data science and library science meets in the next few years.


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