The New Oil of the 21st Century: Sri Lanka’s Need for Data Scientists

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review named being a ‘data scientist’ the “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century”. If that is not appealing enough, it is estimated that by 2020, there will be 40 trillion gigabytes (40 zettabytes) of data created. In comparison, in 2018 there were 18 trillion gigabytes (18 zettabytes) of data created, which show a 122% increase in data created in just over a span of two years! The availability of such vast amounts of data provides more opportunities for businesses to analyse and use them in developing their businesses. For example, Starbucks uses big data and consumer metrics (including real-time information) to deliver more targeted service options via their mobile app. This blog argues that developing more data scientists can help Sri Lanka not only develop local businesses, but also earn foreign exchange.


Who is a Data Scientist?


The term ‘data scientist’ did not exist a little more than a decade ago. However, with the increasing rate of technological progress, the term “data scientist” is now casually thrown around in the tech realm. But, what does it really mean? And what does a data scientist do?



Source: Reproduced from Intellipat (What Does a Data Scientist Do?)


An effective data scientist would need to have multiple skills, as highlighted in the infographic. For example, they would first start their analysis by cleaning complex data sets for easy access and analysis (data wrangling). Once this data is ready for analysis, they would employ a range of statistical modelling and machine learning techniques (constructing/using algorithms that learn from data for analytical purposes) to analyse the data. They would then use their data visualisation skills to create a graphical presentation of the data. Finally, through their ability of data storytelling (the process of translating data analysis into layman’s terms) they would be able to enhance decision making for businesses.


Why do Businesses Need Data Scientists?


Data scientists can be employed in a wide array of industries, ranging from healthcare and pharmaceuticals, the energy industry, to the airline industry. Data science, when coupled with economics, is able to shape regulatory and policy frameworks through the process of ‘datafication’. As described by the former Dean at the Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Daniel Diermeier, ‘datafication’ is “the ability to transform non-traditional information sources such as text, images, and transactional records into data”. This, in turn, allows policy planners to have a deeper, data-driven insight into policy issues and has “allowed quantitative analysis to penetrate the policy process more deeply than ever before”. This paves the way for a more progressively complex and technology-driven approach to transforming data into policy action that goes beyond traditional empirical research.


For instance, the oil and gas industry currently faces high costs of extraction and difficulties in exploring and finding new oil reserves. Shell, one of the largest oil companies in the world, was no stranger to this. Once Shell invested in employing data scientists, they were able to accurately monitor drilling machinery performance and understand when inventory needed to be replaced.


IT and Data Scientists as a Key Driver for Growth


In the past decade, the IT-BPM industry in Sri Lanka has seen substantial expansion and has shown the strongest growth among all export sectors. Over the last 10 years alone, the industry has grown more than 300%, reaching USD 1.2 billion in revenue, providing jobs to more than 80,000 professionals, and contributing to 12% of Sri Lankan service exports.


At present, Sri Lanka’s IT exports are estimated to be over USD 1.2 billion; the sector is currently the fifth-largest export earner, offering Software/Product Development and Business Process Management (BPM) services. The industry is growing rapidly with the potential to reach USD 5 billion by 2022, with a workforce of 200,000 employees. For instance, companies such as Sydpro, an Australian based company with an office in Sri Lanka, delivers services including business intelligence. Contracts from other Australian companies are outsourced to the office located in Sri Lanka, helping to bolster export revenue of skilled workers and improve the country’s GDP.


In terms of domestic opportunities, John Keels Holdings (JKH) recently constructed a centre for data science and analytics – Octave – and advertised five different vacancies for data scientists. This represents opportunities for data scientists not only in terms of export-led growth, but also in terms of domestic growth.


The Lack of Data Scientists in Sri Lanka and Measures to Bolster Data Science Graduates in Sri Lanka


As it stands now, Sri Lanka fails to meet the expected demand for data scientists due to a lack of skilled graduates from a data science background. This has hindered the country’s ability to reap the benefits offered by the industry. The National Export Strategy (NES) Advisory Committee on ICT / BPM expects to get approximately 5,000 data scientists in the next five years, so that Sri Lanka can be ahead of the pack.


However, while there are currently 14 local universities established under the University Grants Commission (excluding the University of Visual and Performing Arts), only two (the University of Colombo and the University of Peradeniya) have an established data science unit. The lack of departments is partially responsible for the low number of data science graduates in Sri Lanka.


Furthermore, the traditional focus of Sri Lanka’s IT sector has been on software engineering and business process management. However, in the increasingly digitised world, this has branched out into different avenues, namely, data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data solutions.


The most obvious solution to this problem is equipping individuals with the necessary skills. This is currently being done through the use of training programs. The Sri Lanka Association for Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM) announced the launch of its knowledge and skills mission to train 50,000 students on data science and AI.


This line of thinking must be extended to secondary education as well. Encouraging students to pursue a career in this field can be done at the secondary school level by raising awareness about career opportunities and conducting seminars on data science.


Furthermore, public and private schools must also take the initiative to include subject material related to data science in the curricula, which will help spark an interest in the youth on data science.


If any graduates of computer science or a related field wish to acquire the skills required to be a data scientist, the internet is ready to provide them with a wealth of knowledge in the form of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and websites dedicated to teaching data science, such as Datacamp.


Way Forward for Sri Lanka


Technological change has expanded the rate at which data is created. Businesses are interested in harnessing this data for business development. There is an increasing demand for data scientists to carry out the tasks relating to making sense of the data that is being created, and create knowledge that is useful for businesses. Sri Lanka also has the potential to benefit from this development by promoting data scientists. At present, the country faces a lack of data scientists due to an insufficient number of data science units established in local universities, coupled with the lack of awareness of data science at a secondary education level. Facilitating the development of data scientists is crucial in helping growth and earning foreign exchange for Sri Lanka.