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What kind of questions can data science solve?


Data science is not a panacea, and data scientists are not magicians. There are problems data science can’t help. It is best to make a judgment as early in the analytical cycle as possible. Tell your clients honestly and clearly when you figure data analytics can’t give the answer they want. What kind of questions can data science solve? What are the requirements for our question?

(1) Your question needs to be specific enough

Look at two examples:

It is easy to see the difference between the two questions. Question 1 is a grammatically correct question, but it is proper for data analysis to answer. Why? It is too general. What is the response variable here? Product sales? Which product? Is it annual sales or monthly sales? What are the candidate predictors? You nearly can’t get any useful information from the questions. In contrast, question 2 is much more specific. From the analysis point of view, the response variable is clearly “annual sales of P1197 in Iowa and Wisconsin”. Even we don’t know all the predictors, but the variable of interest is “the new promotional tool introduced early this year.” We want to study the impact of the promotion on the sales. You can start from there and move on to figure out other variables need to include in the model by further communication.

As a data scientist, you may start with something general and unspecific like question 1 and eventually get to question 2. Effective communication and in-depth domain knowledge about the business problem are essential to convert a general business question into a solvable analytical problem. Domain knowledge helps data scientist communicate with the language the other people can understand and obtain the required information.

However, defining the question and variables involved don’t guarantee that you can answer it. I have encountered a well-defined supply chain problem. My client asked about the stock needed for a product in a particular area. Why can not this question be answered? I did fit a Multivariate Adaptive Regression Spline (MARS) model and thought I found a reasonable solution. But it turned out later that the data they gave me was inaccurate. In some areas, only estimates of past supply figures were available. The lesson lends itself to the next point.

(2) You need to have sound and relevant data

One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Data scientists need data, sound and relevant data. The supply problem is a case in point. There was relevant data, but not sound. All the later analytics based on that data was a building on sand. Of course, data nearly almost have noise, but it has to be in a certain range. Generally speaking, the accuracy requirement for the independent variables of interest and response variable is higher than others. In question 2, it is data related to the “new promotion” and “sales of P1197”.

The data has to be helpful for the question. If you want to predict which product consumers are most likely to buy in the next three months, you need to have historical purchasing data: the last buying time, the amount of invoice, coupons and so on. Information about customers’ credit card number, ID number, the email address is not going to help.

Often the quality of the data is more important than the quantity, but the quantity can not be overlooked. In the premise of guaranteeing quality, usually the more data, the better. If you have a specific and reasonable question, also sound and relevant data, then congratulations, you can start playing data science!

Problem type

Many of the data science books classify the various models from a technical point of view. Such as supervised vs. unsupervised models, linear vs. nonlinear models, parametric models vs. non-parametric models, and so on. Here we will continue on “problem-oriented” track. We first introduce different groups of real problems and then present which models can be used to answer the corresponding category of questions.

(1) Comparison

The first common problem is to compare different groups. Such as: Is A better in some way than B? Or more comparisons: Is there any difference among A, B, C in a certain aspect? Here are some examples:

For those problems, it is usually to start exploring from the summary statistics and visualization by groups. After a preliminary visualization, you can test the differences between treatment and control group statistically. The commonly used statistical tests are chi-square test, t-test, and ANOVA. There are also methods using Bayesian methods. In biology industry, such as new drug development, crop breeding, mixed effect models are the dominant technique.

(2) Description

In the problem such as customer segmentation, after you cluster the sample, the next step is to figure out the profile of each class by comparing the descriptive statistics of the various variables. Questions of this kind are:

Data description is often used to check data, find the appropriate data preprocessing method, and demonstrate the model results.

(3) Clustering

Clustering is a widespread problem, which is usually related to classification. Clustering answers questions like:

Note that clustering is unsupervised learning. The most common clustering algorithms include K-Means and Hierachical Clustering.

(4) Classification

Usually, a labeled sample set is used as a training set to train the classifier. Then the classifier is used to predict the category of a future sample. Here are some example questions:

There are hundreds of classifiers. In practice, we do not have to try all the models as long as we fit in several of the best models in most cases.

(5) Regression

In general, regression deals with the problem of “how much is it?” and return a numerical answer. In some cases, it is necessary to coerce the model results to be 0, or round the result to the nearest integer. It is the most common problem.

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