Nov 10 2017

Doing Data Science before it was Data Science

Published by at 9:31 am under faculty

(This post was authored by Dr. Bill Eberle)

When I tell people I worked on Star Wars, I generally get that look of “What?”, “Really?”, or “You’re too short for a storm trooper.” I then have to explain to them that it was actually called the Star Wars Defense Initiative – a national defense system created during the Reagan years to protect our country from a potential Russian nuclear strike.  It was fun working on the project.  I got to work in what is called a Tempest building – a building so thick that signals cannot get in or out.  I was using high-end graphical work stations, and programming fairly complex mathematical equations.  I even got to meet senior military personnel, whom I would then demo simulations of the defense system.  Unfortunately, I never got to meet Admiral Ackbar.

Stars Wars_Eberle Blog

While all of this work was satisfying, I was not getting to use any of what I had learned over the last several years while I earned my Masters’ degree in Computer Science with a concentration in Artificial Intelligence. Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself. A local division of a major telecommunications company was starting a new project, and was looking to hire software engineers on a project involving marketing data.  While, at that time, I didn’t see the A.I. in what was being advertised, something intrigued me about the opportunity.  So I applied.

I got a call a couple of weeks later to meet with the hiring manager. While we talked about the project, I realized that the general problem they were trying to solve was handling lots of data (nobody called it “big data” back then) and creating tools that would provide knowledge to their users – or, today, we would call it data science.  I then proposed to him some ideas out of artificial intelligence that could be used to analyze the data and present information in a way that would be easy to use and understand by their customers.  I think that sold him, because he called me back the next week and asked when I could start.

I then got to spend the next three years doing data science! I was involved in everything from natural language processing, to data warehousing, to complex SQL querying of the data, to visualization of the data.  My MS thesis had been in natural language processing, so I used that expertise to create software that allowed marketing people to ask the system queries, in English – like how many people are married, drive a BMW, have a dog, and 2.5 kids – and in turn it would generate SQL queries to the data warehouse.  Results were then translated back into English (or into a table, if they preferred), making it very easy for them to understand the results.  And all of this was done on a very big data warehouse, which, at that time, was actually the largest data warehouse in the world.

In the end, it was all about creating software that made it easier for users to understand their data.

I may not have been able to destroy the Death Star, but it was still lots of fun.


Next Time: Doing Fraud Detection

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