GM, IBM Among Companies Joining With Schools to Cultivate Data Scientists

Corporate-Driven Data Projects Find Home in Academia

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Corporate influence on education is a touchy subject, but when it comes to data-science education, corporations and academics are commingling more and more.

Companies including General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Hearst, Verizon, Yahoo, Independence Blue Cross and IBM are fostering symbiotic bonds with colleges and universities: Companies provide problems and the research data to potentially solve them, not to mention sponsorship dollars. The schools, in turn, create a well-trained data workforce with real-world business experience.

IBM and GM staff members with the MSU team who worked on the SMART project.
IBM and GM staff members with the MSU team who worked on the SMART project.

GM recently collaborated with IBM at Michigan State University, part of the school's MBA in analytics. The project brought together MSU students, IBM execs and Nathan Bruin-Slot, program manager for the GM Customer-Assistance and Relationship-Services initiative. Mr. Bruin-Slot worked on a weekly basis with students to produce analytics for improving the automaker's customer-ownership experience.

The grad students garnered valuable knowledge employing actual GM data culled from dealer-training programs and service requests, and IBM assisted in implementing technology and business coaching. "We want these skills consumed in the local economy," said Rich Rodts, IBM manager-solution specialists and global academic programs at IBM, regarding Michigan and Detroit-area industry.

Such programs, managed by IBM, usually last around eight weeks. "It literally becomes a consulting project" that gives students access to executives they otherwise wouldn't meet, Mr. Rodts said.

Connections lead to jobs
Those connections can lead to jobs. IBM's program at Yale helped GlaxoSmithKline determine how consumers perceive two pharmaceutical lines, and in the end two students were hired by the pharma giant, and another by IBM, said Mr. Rodts. IBM also is developing curricula for Ohio State graduate, undergraduate and executive education programs focused on data analytics, in addition to working with Northwestern University and Kansas State University.

"It's a trend in many industries—academia meets business. The private sector has cut back on research, and the research still needs to be done," said Roy Lowrance, managing director at the Center for Data Science at New York University.

NYU has paired with Independence Blue Cross in a sprawling research project involving several teams throughout NYU including at its Langone Medical Center. The health-insurance firm will give a $600,000 grant to NYU towards a multi-year research initiative intended to detect undiagnosed diabetes and forecast which patients are potential diabetics.

Known as "sponsored research" in the academic sphere, the project will be conducted by faculty members and doctoral students as well as some masters and post-doctoral students, according to Mr. Lowrance.

Yahoo gave several hundred servers to NYU over the past six months or so, he said. Those computer systems were used by NYU students to build a Hadoop cluster, a set of servers used to run Apache Hadoop software for high-speed data parsing and analytics.

Scientists in Residence
NYU makes space available at a cost to what it calls "Scientists in Residence," a small collective of corporate-data execs working alongside faculty. The school is also initiating a related "capstone course," academic parlance for a high-level project encompassing several areas of previously-studied coursework—that will start this fall.

"We will give priority to our corporate partners in providing data sets for the capstone project," said Mr. Lowrance. "It's a good way to get your company name known on campus."

NYU also recently began offering a master's in data science, a two-year degree with applications in a variety of areas, and is a key school involved in the corporate-funded NYC Media Lab, a collaborative effort of the New York City Economic Development Corp., Polytechnic Institute of New York University and Columbia University launched in 2010. Hearst, Verizon, HBO and Time Warner Cable have agreed to fund the project for three years, paying $150,000 each in total.

City College of New York also has begun its Digital Media Fast Track program in conjunction with digital-media tech firms PubMatic and MediaLink. PubMatic execs are working with CCNY faculty to determine areas in data analysis, ad tech and other digital arenas in which ad industry execs of tomorrow will need competence.

"You have to have some sort of farm system where you grow these people," said Roger Neal, executive director of the NYC Media Lab.

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