How Technology and Big Data are Democratizing Science

Take a moment to think about and appreciate how much more capacity you have to do things than your grandparents did. Watch videos, communicate with friends (or foes!), build furniture at home; even though our fore-bearers had the capacity to do these things, it was simply more difficult, and thus they actually did them less than we do now. Broadly speaking, as improvements in various technologies remove barriers and reduce the cost of doing something, people are more likely to do it. And in many cases this is great, both for individuals and businesses.

By now, you’ve likely heard of “data democratization.” It’s a business strategy that aims to improve decision making at every level by giving all employees, regardless of their level of technical knowledge, the means to access and understand company data. Impossible to imagine even just a decade ago, technological advances gave new powers to the so-called “average employee,” and the same technologies promise to shake up the way society interacts with science.

Back in the day, if you wanted to conduct an experiment, you either needed the resources to support your experiment, or you needed the backing of a university or organization. Publishing your work in respected publications required advanced degrees and/or prior recognition, and usually the support of similarly educated and recognized individuals through a peer-review process. If you weren’t of those means, tough luck… you, however, are lucky enough to be alive and reading this in the 21st century.

With the support of other great innovations, the development and improvement of portable computer processors, memory storage, networking, and laptops has afforded more people than ever the ability to experiment and discover solutions to problems old and new. Don’t take my word for it; just have a look at Kaggle’s competition page (Kaggle offers machine learning challenges to individuals, sometimes with a monetary reward), and you’ll see dozens and dozens of what may seem like lofty, maybe even unattainable goals.

Find ships on satellite images as quickly as possible.”

“Classify subcellular protein patterns in human cells.”

“Build an algorithm that automatically detects potential pneumonia cases.”

People are attacking problems like this every day, and they’re doing it from their laptops, without any formal education requirement, on a budget of nothing but their time. Surprised? Amazed? Excited? You should be for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that more and more people are focusing a lot of effort on developing solutions for incredibly impactful problems. Less obvious though, is the fact that we are addressing problems that we have not found solutions for yet, problems for which data science and machine learning may provide our best solution.

Perhaps that’s why companies including Google, Apple, and IBM don’t even require college degrees anymore; this policy doesn’t just apply to entry level jobs, but for positions like software developer, financial block-chain engineer, and product manager. As better jobs become available to more and more people without restrictions like wealth, personal connections, or education level ruling individuals out from the start, society becomes more just and better equipped to face important challenges.

Six months ago I quit my sales job, because I was tired of chasing the money and feeling like I was contributing little value to society. Ten weeks ago, I had never written a line of code. And last week, I was afforded the opportunity to present a solution to the Department of Defense and FEMA on how to leverage social media, natural language processing, and geo-spatial data to identify individuals in need during natural disasters.

What I find really exciting is that I’m just getting started. And if can help to solve a problem like that, I can only imagine what seasoned data scientists are focused on! The ability to explore the way our world works, challenge common knowledge, and influence our world for the better has never been more within reach.

In the early 1500’s, as a wave of inspiration and awakening was sweeping across Europe, Martin Luther wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Today, I would offer similar advice to anyone that sees an opportunity to improve our world… If you want to change the world, pick up your laptop and code.

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