KSU’s new analytics, data Ph.D. program one of first in country

By Philip Clements KENNESAW — A new Ph.D. program at Kennesaw State University will teach…

Georgia (Feb 23, 2015)By Philip Clements


Link To Article


KENNESAW — A new Ph.D. program at Kennesaw State University will teach students how to analyze and understand the “tsunami of data” being generated every day.

Jennifer Lewis Priestley, the director of the Center for Statistics and Analytical Services at KSU, will be the director of the new Ph.D. program in analytics and data science, one of the first in the country.

“You almost can’t move through the day without generating an immense amount of data in the sense that every time you send an email, every time you post on Facebook, every time you tweet, every time you use your credit card, every time you fill up your car, every time you log into Pandora or Spotify and you listen to music — everything we do is being digitized and captured as data in some form,” Priestley said.

The data, however, isn’t structured and there is no way for the layperson to make any sense of it, she explained.

“The science of analytics is really all about taking that massive amount of raw, unstructured data and translating it into meaningful information that can improve the decision-making process,” Priestley said.

Mark Anderson is the dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, which will house the program, and said there is so much data because collecting data is easy.

“But in the absence of analysis, that data is really useless,” Anderson said. “It’s the analysis that turns massive amounts of data into information … people can use to make important decisions about the direction of society.”

He said the challenge with data used to be the exact opposite before technology became more prevalent, because data used to be more difficult to collect, making analysis easier.

“As the computer revolution has come and the information revolution has come, starting in the ’80s to today, it’s easy to get data now,” Anderson said. “It’s easy to store data because computer technology is much better (and) storage of information is a lot less expensive.”

Anderson said the program will start with five students and grow from there. 

According to Tammy DeMel, university spokesperson, the program is expected to be cost-neutral based on enrollment and revenue projections. 

Anderson said Netflix is a good example of how data science is applied in everyday life, as Netflix analyzes the shows and movies a user watches and tracks the ratings the user gives the shows and movies to make recommendations.

Priestley pointed to Pandora, the online music service, as an example of how data science is being applied.

Pandora is a product of the Music Genome Project, Priestley said, which is similar to the Human Genome Project in that it sought to map songs and musical artists on a “genetic” level by analyzing every component of the music.

“Music geneticists have gone in and literally decomposed music down to its genetic level,” she said, noting the analysts accounted for aspects such as instruments, patterns, amount of bass, amount of treble, beats per minute (speed), genre of the music and who wrote and produced the songs.

“Then, when you go into Pandora and you start developing your profile of the type of music you like, they’re going to search through all this genetic data of all these songs and then make recommendations for you based on the types of patterns you like to listen to in your music,” Priestley said.

She said Pandora is effective because somebody understood, analytically, how to take the songs, deconstruct them at the genetic level and then “reconstruct it in a way that was going to be meaningful to you.”

Priestley said online retailers also use data science to set prices based on user profiles. For instance, the price for an iPhone seen by someone who has all Apple computer products is probably going to be different than the price for the same iPhone seen by someone who has all Dell computer products.

It’s just another manifestation of how analytics is driving our lives,” she said. “Because you’ve generated an immense amount of data as you’ve gone through the process of using your Apple computer and all the sites that you visit and how price-sensitive you are and (if) you need free shipping and all of the things you do on your computer gets stored.”

Because it affects almost everybody and it involves many aspects of daily life, privacy has become a big concern for how data is being collected and what is being done with it.

The National Security Agency came under fire, for instance, after it became known the organization was collecting phone records and conducting surveillance without people’s permission.

Priestley said privacy creates a “whole new frontier” for the fairly new field of data science.

“We’re dealing with data and we have to abide by the law,” she said. “There are very specific laws that guide privacy.”

Anderson said it’s important for institutions of higher learning to not only teach the discipline but also teach how to use the discipline responsibly.

Priestley said the legal and ethical aspects of data science are “heavily integrated” into the program as a result of the advisory board that works with the program.

The advisory board is composed of advisors from most of the major corporations in and around the Atlanta area, such as The Home Depot, AT&T, Equifax and the Southern Company.

Priestley said those companies worked with the university as the Ph.D. program was being developed and incorporated course material as it relates to the ethics, the liability, the law, data privacy, data security and what the responsibilities are for someone who graduates the program. 

Priestley explained that data science is not unlike other fields of science such as chemistry or biology, which also come with a lot of ethical questions. 

“Just because we have the ability to (do something), should we? Data scientists are now being faced with these things,” Priestley said. “So just because I know how to this, just because I can do this, should I do it? Well, probably not.”

She said there are a lot of gray areas where a data scientist may not be breaking the law but might still be doing something unethical. For instance, if there is a piece of information, such as gender, she wasn’t able to use, there is a way around it.

“If you give me a strong enough computer, enough Diet Coke and a little bit of time, I could develop a pretty good mathematical proxy for gender such that I would effectively be using that information even though I didn’t violate the law,” Priestley said.

Because it is a relatively new field, Priestley said, there is a lot of demand in just about every industry for people who are trained how to analyze data.

“We have too many jobs and not enough people,” she said. “There are simply not enough people in the pipeline who can do these types of things.”

She said just about every company in the country is essentially chasing the same talent.

“We have the equivalent of an employment ‘run on the bank’ right now. Everybody is trying to chase the same people,” Priestley said. “That’s true whether you’re talking about retail, health care, finance, marketing, government, public sector or the private sector, everybody is trying to solve the same problems.”

The university’s Master’s of Science in applied statistics, which has a 100 percent placement rate, is graduating more data scientists and applied statisticians than any other educational institutions in the state.

“We’re actually one of the largest producers of data scientists in the country,” she said.

The median starting salary for the Master’s program is about $80,000 and the mean is probably closer to $90,000, Priestley added.



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu