Statistics and data analysis in the spotlight as future career choices

Posted on March 28, 2017


In the digital world of today, it seems we would barely be able to function without social media, smartphones and other digital processes that have become intrinsic parts of our daily lives. For students considering their future career path, a career in statistics and data analysis would seem to guarantee future success. In surveys showcasing the top jobs in 2016, data statisticians ranked at the top of the list in terms of hours, stress levels and pay. Even George Bernard Shaw said, 'It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.'

The Department of Statistics, in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria, recently hosted a statistics awareness day for Mathematics teachers and learners to demonstrate the importance of statistics in the school curriculum and in everyday life. The event also aimed at highlighting the exciting prospects for learners who pursue a career in statistics and data analysis.

Staff from the Department and guest speakers shared their insights into the role of statistics and the need for analytical thinkers in South Africa. They described statistics as a prime tool for making good decisions and making life simpler.

Prof Greg Lee of the Wits Business School discussed the business trends of today, noting how everything is impacted by analytics. Analytics have become so advanced that artificial intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Cognitive analytics and systems like IBM's Watson have advanced to the point where computers are able to learn, think and make decisions. In the future many jobs will become redundant, replaced by such systems. Prof Lee stresses, however, that statistics play a key role in serving and developing these systems, making it a wise career path to pursue.

Statistics and data analysis are not just about business trends and the corporate sector, but can also serve areas of great need, such as the conservation of wildlife and protected areas. Dr Alta de Waal of the Department of Statistics discussed how statistics and analysis assisted her in her effort to protect the country's rhino population. Dr De Waal, in collaboration with the CSIR and the Kruger National Park, developed a model to predict poaching trends in the reserve. With an area of nearly 20 000 km², it is almost impossible to predict where in the park poaching is most likely to occur. However, by taking into consideration the causal impacts and factors that lead to poaching – including vegetation and water, the phases of the moon, time of day and month, season, and areas within the park in relation to border fences, communities and gates – Dr De Waal was able to develop a model to predict the areas that are most likely to be targeted. This assisted SANParks in making sure resources are used optimally.

Statistics are also being used in the area of fashion. Jean Tranter, Head of Analytics at the Foschini Retail Group highlighted how consumer trends are better understood with the application of statistics. One of the key areas of focus for Tranter and his team of data scientists is the use of statistics to determine the type of relationships they should be developing with their customers, where they are considered on an individual basis in terms of their shopping trends.

These interesting discussions about the value of statistics in various businesses were followed by panel discussions, led by the esteemed mathematician and former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof Loyiso Nongxa, and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Education, Prof Max Braun. These discussions focused on the value of statistics within the analytical sciences and in industry, as well as the teaching aspect of statistics today. This fruitful event was held at the beautiful African Pride Irene Country Lodge in Centurion.



- Author Louise de Bruin

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