December 9, 2016, Deferal Reserve Bank, Boston, Massachusetts: Mass Insight Global Partnerships.

Data Science Leaders Weigh In: Boston’s Promise as a Data Science Hub

In the Boston area, we have an abundant supply of the world’s best data scientists flowing out of our world-class universities, and an even greater demand for them at our private companies and other institutions. But where Boston has an edge over Silicon Valley in becoming a universal hub of data science technology is its deep content knowledge, combined with its expertise in data analytics and AI/machine learning and behavioral research, allowing us to put giant databases generated to good use.

Data is only as valuable as one’s ability to comb through it and extract meaning. That capacity comes from our expertise in science and medicine, providing insights into health and wellness; it’s our understanding of social science and human behavior as well as technology that positions us to address the biggest problems in areas like cybersecurity; and it’s our longstanding financial expertise in helping people prepare for retirement that informs our analysis of market data and personal needs. Boston’s deep roots in all those areas will fuel our growth in data science in the coming years.

Human Challenges – Boston’s Multi-Disciplinary Strength

Both Boston and Silicon Valley enjoy access to the world’s best computer engineers, but some of Boston’s most prominent data science leaders argue that it’s our multi-disciplinary resources that give the area the depth to win the data science race.

“When I think of data science, I think of it as the intersection of three things: data, science and business,” said Sears Merritt, vice president of data science at MassMutual Financial Group. “If you look at Boston, we have world-class institutions across all three of those.”

Merritt sees the intersection of two of the Boston area’s two biggest strengths — healthcare and finance —as a clear opportunity to support overall wellness – health and financial security. “If we can make progress on understanding (wellness) for society at large… that gives Boston a brand name,” he said.

Gaurav Singal, senior director of data and technology product development at Foundation Medicine, argues that Boston has the technical side of data science down, but it’s the interpretation that really makes it useful. “There’s no better place than Boston” for healthcare data science. But even in other fields, he says what makes Boston different from Silicon Valley is an added dimensionality beyond simply the technical knowhow that can be used to interpret big data.

“The people you find in Boston are different from the kind you find in Silicon Valley,” Singal said. “You don’t always need or want data science majors as employees — those who know the field best are often more valuable.”

December 9, 2016, Deferal Reserve Bank, Boston, Massachusetts: Mass Insight Global Partnerships.

December 9, 2016, Federal Reserve Bank, Boston, Massachusetts: Mass Insight Global Partnerships.

Big Databases Attract Leading Talent

The challenge locally is to keep our abundance of data scientists from leaving for any of the better-known names in big data. For the large-scale societal challenges we face, nowhere is positioned better than the Boston area to leverage the power of big data. But the first step is to work together to create large databases. Philip Evans, senior advisor and fellow at the Boston Consulting Group, makes a distinction between “data” and “science,” saying while we’ve got the former, we need to develop the latter through partnerships between corporations.

“The database is actually the part that really gates commercial development,” Evans said. The region should focus on generating huge databases – either directly or through partnerships – from which scientists can glean valuable information. “Google and Facebook get the best data scientists because they have the best data to play with. It’s not because they are paying more.”

Open Source Data Networks Create Competitive Advantage

But it’s not enough to think of it in terms of the size of a given database at a specific institution, said Evans. Rather, it’s a body of data that goes beyond a single institution, and to that end, companies need to overcome their resistance to sharing proprietary data in order to create the databases that become a data science center.

Fortunately, there’s a precedent for collaboration in the field of data science in the Bay State, said Dave Knapp, vice president for corporate research at Boston Scientific. In fact, the way that people working in fields like big data, cybersecurity and digital health can all work together alongside the “amazing academic institutions” and the state government is “actually the big story in Boston,” Knapp said.

A Call to Action

A State Role: Digital Leadership and Data Sharing Incentives

Massachusetts has one big advantage over California, Illinois and other states in creating any kind of data science hub, said Robert Atkinson, president of the D.C.-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. A strong set of privacy laws allows for much easier sharing of data to create large pools from which insights can be gleaned.

“You could position Massachusetts as the antithesis of the other states,” he said. “I could imagine legislation to make data sharing easier,” that could encourage data sharing in healthcare, financial services and the Earth sciences. In addition to pursuing policies that support and incentivize data innovation, the state can play a role as a convener and by modernizing its own systems to make the Commonwealth a digital leader.

Branding and Promotion

Merritt, of MassMutual, contends that Boston is already doing a lot of what it needs to lead the world in data science. “Maybe we as a region just need to do a better job of self-promoting,” he said.

That view is also held by Mona Vernon, vice president of Thomson Reuters Labs in Boston, who sees Boston’s as full of brilliant, but understated people. She said that Bostonians are uncomfortable talking about their own strengths, but that’s exactly what’s needed to spread the word about the data science resources here.

New Collaborative Networks – Connecting Large Firms and Start Ups

Massachusetts needs more “collision points” for senior leaders in finance and technology to meet and form partnerships, says Jean Donnelly, executive director of the FinTech Sandbox. That means Demo Day events, hackathons, virtual introductions, and networking events. In New York, there’s a strong culture of networking events in financial data science. But in creating partnerships between startups and big financial institutions, there are challenges on both sides.

“Many times, an entrepreneur has created a great solution for a financial institution, but does not know how to position the solution so that it is answering a problem the institutions are trying to address,” she said. “On the flip side… startups can get lost within big companies, being endlessly handed off to different groups within a company, losing valuable time and not working with key decision makers.”

The opportunity is to form collaborative data science networks with ongoing links between large and emerging firms, industry, universities, and the state – and establish the region as a global model for next generation data partnerships responding to industry and societal challenges.

Thank you to our opinion leaders interviewed for this piece:

  • Sears Merritt, vice president, data science, MassMutual
  • Robert Atkinson, president, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
  • Philip Evans, senior advisor and fellow, Boston Consulting Group
  • Gaurav Singal, senior director, data and technology product development, Foundation Medicine
  • Dave Knapp, vice president for corporate research, Boston Scientific
  • Mona Vernon, vice president, Thomson Reuters Labs in Boston
  • Jean Donnelly, executive director, FinTech Sandbox