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Thanks to breakneck advances in technology, data’s integration into everyday life, and the increasing recognition of how it can be used to enhance and add value across various different areas, hard-walled silos in the IT industry are increasingly irrelevant.

According to the University of Canberra’s Professor of Affective Computing, Dr Roland Goecke, integration is key, and this creates a myriad of opportunities for the IT professional who wants to remain on the leading edge of the industry, and also make a real-world impact in people’s lives.

“Realistically, we’re early in the development of the data revolution, still in the pioneering phase in terms of widespread adoption – so now is the time to enter the field to shape its future,” he said.

“The first step is to have the understanding and knowledge to appreciate where data science, cloud computing or business informatics – to name a few – can make an impact.

“I believe that everyone will need some of these skills to varying degrees, across many different areas including business, government and environmental organisations.

“To make an impact in your field, it’s necessary to equip yourself with the relevant skills to tap into and create that impact, whether that is with a Master of Data Science or a Master of IT degree –upskill with a program that keeps abreast of the latest developments in the field, yet gives a valuable grounding.”

Fitbits and Apple watches everywhere

With an eye on the data science field, Professor Goecke sees some clear opportunities emergent.

In fitness-centric Australia, it seems that more wrists sport Fitbits and Apple watches than ever before – and that’s just data in a personal health and fitness setting.

“One of the fastest-growing areas, in which we see data science playing a constantly expanding role, revolves around health – and wellbeing-related data – whether that is in a clinical or hospital setting, or your fitness tracker measuring your heart rate,” Professor Goecke said.

“Health data is everywhere.

“However, in Australia, there is a shortage of data scientists who can deal with health-related data, because it’s not really taught as a direct specialisation in the health area.”

Professor Goecke says that when working with health-related data, it is important to have both the technical skills and a keen understanding of health settings – these could range from care provided at home to healthcare in rural and regional community settings.

“We need multidisciplinary teams working with health practitioners to make sense of health-related data,” he said.

“This can include population data. For instance, if you have been following news and communications around the COVID-19 outbreaks, vaccination rates, and how they relate to spatial data – the analysis of this would fall at the intersection of data science, informatics and epidemiology.”

Applying data science and informatics knowledge to sports strategy and analysis is a natural segue from health-related data applications – and it spans the spectrum from elite sport to everyday health and wellness.

“Modelling plays a huge part in this aspect of data science,” Professor Goecke said.

“Sports data analysis has taken huge steps – scientists can use data to measure not only performance, but the realities of training mode, and injuries incurred.

“Most of the professional leagues have GPS trackers in their clothing, which track positioning, acceleration data – but even if you have access to that tech, what do the results generated mean? How do you turn that into something meaningful for the coach – for instance, how much recovery time might an athlete need?”

Save the planet

With climate change a particularly hot topic – even more so with the recent COP26, or 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, dominating global headlines – Professor Goecke sees this as another area of opportunity for budding data scientists to make a difference.

“This is an area in which data scientists can have a huge impact on conversations around conservation, for instance,” Professor Goecke said.

“Imagine the ability to model what it means for the ACT or the Yass Valley to receive more or less rainfall, or to interpret the data gathered by camera traps and drones for animal conservation, and present it in a way that will help people to understand a conservation message – because the flipside of working with data is to be able to communicate what the data means.”

Professor Goecke says that traditionally, there has been a lot of emphasis on data-related technologies and techniques, but less focus on communications.

“While data science has grown out of maths and stats departments around the world, it is now one of the foremost areas highlighting the need for science communication skills – certainly, if you want to translate any of your work into policy and impact,” he said.

“Ideally, we need to understand that a 10-page report could probably better be visualised via Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR), as a way of closing the loop and getting the message across.”

Professor Goecke also sees both an opportunity and a need in building the framework to scaffold data science work.

“Not everything that is technically possible should automatically be done, and questions of ethics and privacy always need to be considered,” he said.

“We need to look at such questions in the broader social context, and seek answers to questions like how should data be used, where and for how long it should be stored, what kind of energy and environmental impact this could involve?”

Professor Goecke feels this self-reflective questioning of the industry is a necessary ongoing process, as there is little current regulation.

“This is an area in its infancy, and one of great promise – but it needs to have safeguards built around it, the right oversight and ethics in place. There needs to be a balance of privacy and development – as data scientists, we need to make wise, clear-eyed judgments on a daily basis.”

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