Bringing the depths of data to light 

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Ernest Fokoué is intent on expanding public awareness of data and its presence in daily life. A professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, Fokoué  hopes to encourage the community, through three upcoming events, to play with data and explore its depths.

“My overarching goal is to increase the awareness of the public on the fact we are always doing data analytics, whether we formally and explicitly formulate our activities that way,” Fokoué says. “I then intend to bless my community with systematic and principled tools and methods for harnessing the pearls of knowledge underlying their data.”

This goal includes young members of the community as well. On March 1, the RIT pre-college data analytics competition released a data set for high school participants to interpret and analyze. The contest, which started in 2017, attempts to draw students, regardless of grade level, to participate in furthering their knowledge. In teams, they tackle a complex dataset, analyze it and upload results on April 1. Awards are presented at Imagine RIT.

Ideally, Fokoué says, he would like teams to be representative of all schools, especially those in the Rochester City School District. However, in the last few years, Pittsford Mendon High School has led the charge.

“The response has varied over the years, partly due to many teachers’ reluctance to take on ‘more work,’ Fokoué notes. ”Pittsford Mendon has dominated this competition, with several teams coming from it and many of their teams producing high-quality data analysis.”

He hopes that the contest will shine a light on the evolving field of data science and sharpen the statistical literacy of pre-college students.

Another celebration of data is the RIT American Statistical Association DataFest. In this competition, teams of undergraduate students work together to find meaning in a dataset. These groups learn to collaborate with each other, connect with data science experts from other colleges and universities, and build their skills. This year’s fest is slated for March 22-24.

Also organized by teams and team captains, these groups of aspiring statistical scientists and data miners can register for a mentor and faculty guidance as they participate in the competition.

DataFest has its roots in California, at the University of California, Los Angeles, when 30 students collaborated for 48 hours to analyze five years of arrest records provided by the Los Angeles Police Department. Today, the contest is sponsored by the American Statistical Association. Hosts now are a mix of colleges and universities nationwide, and more than 2,000 students participate.

Fokoué is an active member of ASA who helps with organizing these events and UPSTAT, the flagship statistical conference of the Upstate New York chapters of the association. RIT will host the event April 12-13. The top three teams from DataFest will present at the event.

These opportunities to showcase data’s complexities and its power are a way for Fokoué and others in the field to clear a misconception that data is just numbers and reserved for computer scientists, mathematicians and statisticians. Fokoué says data is for every single human being interested in making sense of underlying patterns through systematic and principled discovery.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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