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A computer scientist’s perspective on introductory data science

Part of the occasional unindexed series Sam posts and comments on things that he was writing anyway.

As I’ve mentioned before, this semester I’m teaching a new version of our introductory course that focuses on data science. Of course, data science is one of those terms that people don’t quite agree upon. To some, it is just a way of re-branding statistics for people who, for whatever reason, don’t trust statistics. For others, it goes hand-in-hand with big data, whatever those are. For others, it refers to a branch of applied math that develops techniques that can then be applied by statisticians and analysts to better understand data. For yet others, it’s a word we use for applying machine learning to data sets. I’ve probably missed your favorite definition.

I will admit that my view of data science shares some aspects with many of those concepts. But many are not ideas that I consider important for an introductory course in computer science. Hence, I’ve been working on a description of the kind of data science we do in our course. I wrote one description for our SIGCSE submission. Recently, I updated it for the students in the class. Here’s what I wrote, more or less. I know that it will offend some and confuse others, but it’s what I’m going with.

In any case, this is what my students are reading about four weeks into the semester. Next semester [1], they [2] will probably get to read it at the beginning of the semester.

What is data science?

Although the field of data science is rapidly gaining in popularity, its definition is tenuous, at best. As one of the statistics faculty noted when talking to us about possible ways to design a data science curriculum, if you ask a dozen statisticians to define data science, you’ll get at least a half-dozen different answers. In this course, we take an algorithmic approach to data science. Let’s consider what we mean by that.

Data science, like statistics, is a way of exploring sets of information. Data science distinguishes itself from statistics by focusing more on providing a wide variety of mechanisms for gaining potential insights from existing data sets. In addition, to a computer scientist, data science is an opportunity to think about a progression of ways to work with data. For example, here is an algorithmic data science pipeline: Starting with a data set that is typically in a somewhat unstructured, less-than-usable form, one wrangles the data into a usable form, cleans the data to remove less applicable data points (e.g., incomplete entries), filters the data to extract the data points of interest, processes the data to put it in a common form, merges the data with other data sets, and finally analyzes or visualizes the data which may lead to insight. Admittedly, this approach relegates much of the interesting statistics and mathematics to analyzes. However, for the purposes of an this course, it allows you to focus on concepts from computer science in the context of data science.

Importantly, one does all these steps programmatically, so that it is possible to replicate the steps on a new or modified data set. It is the replicability that helps distinguish data science from other more ad hoc techniques for exploring data. When a data scientist removes data from their data sets, you know it because the instruction to do so is in the program.

A narrative example

It may help to consider those steps in context. Let us consider a situation in which a student, Bari, is interested in exploring how much people spend on coffee. Bari may be doing so because they drink coffee and want to think more about their spending habits, because they are considering opening a coffee service, because they are lobbying the institution’s financial aid office to change its claimed expected living costs, or just they need to come up with some data set of the class.

After a Web search, Bari finds a report on common coffee purchases at a local Stellaclams and a ’blog in which someone describes their daily drinking habits (including prices). They also convince a classmate who works at The Joe (a local coffee shop) to surreptitiously write down purchases for a week. (Of course, they first have this study approved by the College’s Institutional Review Board, which considers all studies involving human subjects.)

While Bari can download the Stellaclams and ’blog pages, they cannot use those pages in the current form. Hence, they must extract the data from those pages. We term that task wrangling the data. While wrangling is important, it is not a core focus of the course. You will generally work with data that has already been wrangled into a more useful form.

While examining the data, Bari discovers that some of the prices make no sense—no one spends more than $10 for a cup of coffee and it seems unlikely that coffee has a negative price. After ensuring that the wrangling did not introduce spurious information, Bari must therefore clean the data to get rid of the non-sensical data. In our class, you will sometimes clean data that is missing fields, such as a location that has a name, but not a latitude or longitude.

Bari may also have more data than they can (or want to) use. For example, they may want to focus on the past month’s data from the ’blog or Stellaclams. Or they may want to look only at the basic cup of joe, rather than on other less-pure genres of coffee drink. We call the process of extracting the entries of interest filtering.

Note that we distinguish cleaning the data from filtering the data to clarify that there is a difference between removing data that can’t be used and removing data that we choose not to use. However, you may find that you use similar processes, such as the filter procedure, for both activities.

In further exploring the data, Bari realizes that the three sets provide different units. Stellaclams reports in terms of dollars and cents (as in $3.10). For some reason, the author of the ’blog has decided to record prices in pieces of eight. (Here’s an example from the blog: I went to Stellaclams today. They raised their prices. I can’t believe that I had to spend 25 pieces of eight on a plain old cup of joe!). Because they wanted to surreptitiously record the data, Bari’s friend rounded all prices to the nearest whole dollar amount. After consulting with their professor, Bari decides that for the sake of comparison, all three data sets should use whole-dollar prices. Bari then writes a program that processes or transforms the data into a common form and merges the three data sets together.

Bari can then visualize the data or compute summary values, such as the average cost or the variability in prices.

As you might expect, throughout the semester we will explore ways to wrangle, clean, filter, process, merge, analyze, and even visualize data. Along the way, we will start to build our own tools to make it easier for us to do all of these processes.

Additional responsibilities

Although we are approaching data science algorithmically, we have one additional set of responsibilities in our work as data scientists and as computer scientists: We must treat the data ethically. For better or for worse, the analyses that data scientists do may influence the behavior of others. While data science is not a profession in the sense of law, medicine, or engineering, data scientists have the ethical responsibilities associated with the professions.

In particular, we must consider the data itself and the reliability of our conclusions. In some cases, the consideration may take into account the data we have gathered: Are there possibly missing entries or columns that might lead us to come to a different conclusion? For example, if we are looking for extreme places in a messy set of location data, might some of the more extreme locations be more likely to be lacking their latitude or longitude, or have less precise latitude or longitude. In the coffee example, are we giving the data from the ’blogger too much weight and what might Bari’s associate be missing as they record data?

We also have an obligation to consider our processes themselves. Would different processes have led to slightly or completely different result? If so, we should lend little credence to our results, and should discourage others from making use of those results.

It is easy to forget these responsibilities, particularly as we are just developing skills for analyzing data algorithmically. Nonetheless, we will do our best as a class to reflect back on these issues with some regularity.

[1] This musing was written in Fall 2017. Next semester refers to spring 2018.

[2] And by they, I mean the students who take it [3] next semester.

[3] By it, I mean CSC 151, our introductory course [4].

[4] Due to the wonders of the Interweb, it may be that it might also mean students in Lighting the Page, Grinnell’s innovative course on literary analysis in a digital world.

Version 1.0 of 2017-09-21.

Version 1.1 of 2018-02-06.