December 2, 2016

by Bob Keyes

PORTSMOUTH – As a little boy, Bob Rudis imagined having super powers like the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or travel at the speed of light. As a middle-age man, his superpowers are effective in other ways.
Rudis, an adjunct math teacher at Great Bay Community College, has the ability to take limitless amounts of raw data, sort it and make sense of it so the world functions more smoothly, smartly and efficiently.
Rudis, a chief data scientist for the Boston software company Rapid7, is helping Great Bay launch a new associate’s degree program in analytics. It’s a family effort. Rudis’ wife, Mary, heads up Great Bay’s math department, and together they are spearheading an initiative they believe will help distinguish Great Bay by offering an associate’s degree in one of the top growth fields in the information economy.

Data is the new frontier of the 21st century, and data analysts are leading its exploration, Mary Rudis said. Data analyst jobs are abundant, lucrative and intellectually fulfilling. “Companies are desperately looking for qualified individuals to analyze data,” she said. 

Data analysis involves the ability to obtain, interpret and report on data insights, and is useful in private business and industry, public sector jobs and the non-profit sector.
Employees who have the ability to analyze data are valuable because they can help companies or organizations make practical use of the deluge of information that’s available to them. That data, which is usually free to access and readily available to researchers, offers information about consumer and lifestyle trends and tendencies. But without someone to organize it and create a plan to use it, that data holds little value to companies or organizations, Mary Rudis said.
“Having someone on your team who knows how to access and interpret data will change the way your business operates,” she said. “Your business will benefit if you have someone on your staff who is familiar with this. You will make smarter decisions and save money.”

Great Bay’s new analytics program offers a two-year associate’s degree, as well as a clear transfer pathway to the University of New Hampshire-Manchester and a four-year bachelor-of-science degree in analytics. The associate’s degree emulates the first two years of four-year degrees in data analytics, and prepares students to use data to answer questions, drive business decisions and conduct research.

Analysts are in such demand, students who complete Great Bay’s two-year associate’s program will be well-positioned to grab a job as a junior data scientist, Mary Rudis said. With job experience, they will be able to advance in their field, she added.

Bob Rudis jokes that being a good data analyst is a blessing and curse – like any superpower, the power of knowledge carries a lot weight. Data analysis teaches people to question everything, “which means you will never look at the world the same way. You will be driving down the road and you think about everything you see differently – traffic patterns, how businesses operate, why businesses fail and why others succeed,” he said. “Now when you wonder why, you’ll be able to figure it out.”
He used an example from the town where he lives. He took his son to soccer practice in Berwick recently, and noticed that a general store on his route had closed. The store only recently re-opened under new management, after a previous business failed in the same location.

A lot of people might attribute a succession of failed businesses to a doomed location, but Rudis questions that assumption. He contends the business would have more likely succeeded if the owners had accessed and analyzed readily available data about traffic patterns, income and education levels and other indices that convey information about lifestyles of local residents. Armed with that data, the store might have adjusted its offerings, hours or how it tried to reach potential customers with different marketing strategies.

The field appeals to anyone who is driven by curiosity and equipped with basic math skills. “If you can do division, you can do data science,” Mary Rudis said. The field is especially relevant to journalists, engineers and other professionals whose careers intersect public policy. Data helps journalists uncover trends and hidden news stories. It helps engineers design better roads, and helps non-profit organizations develop better strategies for fundraising. Farmers use data to adjust crop rotations to improve efficiency and yields.

The Great Bay program will give students foundational competencies in data communication. Those competencies include how to conduct surveys and experiments, how to extract, sample and analyze data, and to how to visually present that data in a manner that clearly communicates a policy, agenda or idea. Students will learn to apply data analysis skills in any career or job that requires reporting from quantitative or qualitative sources of information, Mary Rudis said.
Students learn to analyze data using R, a free software environment for statistical computing. It runs on Windows, MacOS and a variety of UNIX platforms.

The goal of the program is not to teach students to make fancy-looking spreadsheets – although making effective graphics is part of the curriculum – but to teach them how to handle “several thousands of columns and several thousands of rows with millions of variables,” she said. “It’s like taking a puzzle apart, analyzing each piece and then putting it all back together.”

Ultimately, the program teaches students to sift through mountains of information to discern what information matters. “Everyone throws facts and figures at you all day long, claiming things based on those numbers. Most people don’t have the skills to see if it’s really true,” she said. “We teach people how to see the truth.”

Many colleges offer data science. Great Bay’s program is unique because it targets students who are interested in a four-year degree while also appealing to students who specialize in another field and want to learn data science as a supplemental skill.

People with the ability to analyze data are valuable in all fields, Mary Rudis said, and people in charge of hiring at major corporations, small businesses and across the public and private sectors are beginning to recognize it. In Boston, there are hundreds of companies looking for employees who understand data science. There also are hundreds of “ma and pa” small business across New England that are beginning to understand the benefit of having people on staff who know how to use data. Especially in smaller companies, a data analyst may perform other, non-data related duties.

Great Bay’s program was developed in direct response to the needs of regional employers, and Rudis thinks Great Bay is leading the way at the community college level. “I think there will be many more community colleges creating programs like ours,” she said.