Boston’s ‘world-class’ edge in data science
“When I think of data science, I think of it as the intersection of three things: science, technology, and business,” said Sears Merritt, vice president of data science at MassMutual. “If you look at Boston, we have world-class institutions across all three of these dimensions.”
Merritt oversees a 30-employee data science group at MassMutual, which the company plans to grow to about 50 next year. It was created three years ago to do two things, he says: embed data-driven innovation and decision-making into every aspect of the company’s strategy; and create a strategic enterprise data asset to be used for discovery, innovation, and rapid dissemination of information.
But as a life insurance firm, MassMutual stands at the intersection of two of the region’s foremost industries: health and finance. As such, Boston is perhaps uniquely situation to be on the cutting edge of data science research into health and financial security.
But Merritt points out one big challenge faced by his industry: an infrastructure that’s “old and brittle” compared to other fields that use big data.
MassMutual’s efforts toward data science in recent years – including the establishment of the new MassMutual Data Labs workspace, partnering with UMass in downtown Amherst – is aimed at leveraging data to help the company be more efficient and improve its customer experience, among other initiatives.
Merritt acknowledges his industry has been slow to adopt data science. Part of the problem is that most data on life insurance customers have been generated over decades across a number of different technologies, systems, and business processes. This has led to massive amounts of highly unstructured, messy and complex data that has been difficult to work with.
Honing in on talent
When hiring senior data scientists, Merritt says MassMutual typically looks for someone with a PhD in hard science. He says MassMutual is able to find very high quality talent in both Boston and Amherst, and has created a development program with the 5 colleges in the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts to bring students into the UMass data science program.