Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Data is everywhere. Here’s why data literacy is a key skill in an ever-expanding digital universe

NAIT launches new certificate program in data analytics

When Mark Ryski (Bachelor of Business Administration - Marketing ’88) entered the world of data analytics in the early 2000s, he saw a huge opportunity for the retail industry to use information about foot traffic to stores to improve the customer experience and, with it, boost sales.

The only problem was that data literacy – or illiteracy, to be more accurate – was a tough sell for executives who spoke of profits and losses but didn’t know how to dig into underlying causes such as a misalignment between foot traffic and staffing.

Mark Ryski of HeadCountFor example, stores that are understaffed during peak hours are at risk of delivering poor service such as long lineups at the checkout. If that happens over time, customers are likely to give a store a pass, Ryski says.

“Then the retailer wonders, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with my store?’”

His solution was to self-publish his first book, When Retail Customers Count. With an initial print run of 50 copies, he would ship it to CEOs of retail chains just as a starting point for a conversation.“That’s how I built my company,” explains Ryski, CEO and founder of HeadCount in Edmonton.

Now, he says, “Data is pervasive. Think of any kind of company, every department [in that company] is grappling with data and metrics and information.”

“Data is pervasive. Think of any kind of company, every department is grappling with data.”

By turning data into insights, companies and organizations can improve decision making that touches on virtually everything. Data is used to improve online shopping (think of all those suggested product ads that slide into your social feeds) and content suggestions on streaming platforms such as Netfllix or Spotify. It makes services like Uber or food delivery apps possible. It even saves lives.

But, just as Ryski did, it needs people who can make sense of it all, which is the goal of a new program launching at NAIT.

The ever-expanding data universe

Technological advances over the past 20 years have fuelled the rise of “big data.” Simply put, companies and consumers are using equipment and devices that produce data – lots and lots of data. One estimate suggests that the entire digital universe this year will reach 44 zettabytes.  That means there are 40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe.

Consumers produce a lot as well. Everything from your thermostat to smart TV is part of the Internet of Things, where Wi-Fi enabled devices connect to networks and communicate, generating vast amounts of data.

Presentation of data in a health care setting

“It’s literally captured everywhere,” explains Mark Zubis chair of Data Analytics at NAIT, a post-diploma certificate program that starts this fall. The program is designed to help learners apply the fundamentals of data analysis to their own fields of study or areas of expertise.

“It’s literally captured everywhere.”

The World Economic Forum lists data analysis as among the skills that will be in the highest demand in its Future of Jobs report. In Canada, the data analytics market was estimated to exceed $1.8 billion in 2020 and the industry is facing a skills shortage.

“We’re in the latter days of a paradigm shift for how businesses operate,” explains Zubis. Basically, gut instinct and opinion are going by the wayside, he says, replaced by insights directly supported by facts through data.

“Data analysis is a rapidly growing field. Businesses have created data insights departments within their firms focusing on organizational efficiencies.”

Endless applications

Already, that analysis is having a big impact on our daily lives. Health care is a prime example of an industry that creates massive amounts of data and requires trained analysts and data scientists to keep Albertans healthy.

In fact, data has become part of the public conversation around health care. Just look at stories and headlines about COVID-19, many of which focus on active cases, hospitalization and positivity rates, all of which informs public health restrictions.

Ever since Deep Blue, data has played a fundamental role in machine learning. In 1997, the  IBM supercomputer defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It was the first time artificial intelligence defeated such a chess master. AI has exploded ever since, revolutionizing industries and fuelling a need for vast quantities of data.

Photo of Amazon building

For one of the clearest examples of the power of data, Zubis suggests looking to Amazon. It became one of the world’s largest companies, he says, because of its business culture of data analytics. Not only is that data used to improve the shopping experience, it informs Amazon’s operations, including how it links to manufacturers able to fulfill your order to warehousing and shipping. Netfilix and Google have also created similar cultures.

“All their decisions are based on data,” Zubis says.

“All their decisions are based on data.”

The increased understanding of the value of data has made it easier for companies like HeadCount and Ryski to start a conversation about the benefits of data analysis without having to resort to direct shipping tomes to CEOs. As the conversation expands, other industries will realize the potential – and need  – for skilled talent.

Today, HeadCount provides in-store data analysis to all 1,500 Staples stores in North America and counts London Drugs and Yankee Candle among its clients. By tracking customer visits to stores, they’re able to provide valuable business insights down to the minute. The end result is more sales, but also better customer experiences.

Data literacy, Ryski says, is a skill that shouldn’t be exclusive to data scientists, engineers or coders.

“Every business student should be taught the basic fundamentals of data analytics, data manipulation, extracting insights,” he says.

Banner image: Laurence Dutton/iStockphoto.com


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