If Milwaukee is to grow and keep young workers with skills to turn big data into insights that companies can use to make better decisions, the city needs to step up its game.
That's why Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Wednesday announced they are launching a Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute.
It's touted as both a cutting-edge partnership for the Midwest and a step toward advancing Milwaukee as a hub for technology, research, business and talent development — something Northwestern Mutual chairman and CEO John Schlifske has been talking about for months.
Data scientists are in big demand, and west coast companies now have a major advantage in attracting college graduates with those skills.
Over the next five years, Northwestern Mutual and its foundation will contribute $15 million to support an endowed professorship at each university, expand the universities' curricula around data science, fund research projects and develop learning opportunities for K-12 students, according to a company news release.
Northwestern Mutual also will bring students and professors to its downtown campus by providing classroom, event and office space in its new Cream City Labs — a 17,000-square-foot innovation lab under construction in the 733 N. Van Buren St. building.
For their part, Marquette and UWM will each invest about $12 million in data science education and research by existing faculty.
"Regions thrive when organizations creatively address common challenges from different perspectives," Marquette President Michael Lovell said.
"The physical proximity of UWM and Marquette to Northwestern Mutual is a win-win," said Karl Gouverneur, vice president of digital workplace, corporate solutions and head of digital innovation at Northwestern Mutual.
Not only will data science students and professors have a chance to help Northwestern Mutual solve business challenges and identify opportunities for growth, the company will help guide what college students learn about data science and how it's applied in the real world.
When students graduate, they'll be well-rounded potential employees for Northwestern Mutual and other companies in Milwaukee that use data to help inform decisions, including Robert W. Baird, Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation.
What is data science?
The volume of data collected in today's world is so huge, it's beyond the capacity of humans to analyze without the help of a machine. The average Facebook user knows algorithms are used to determine their interests, and guide targeted advertising their way.
Businesses like Northwestern Mutual harness data to help them make better-informed decisions, and to identify promising growth areas. Big data plays a role in fields ranging from marketing and ecommerce to security, image processing and genetic testing.
Data scientists create complex computer models with algorithms to find patterns that would otherwise be missed by humans. They use predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Big data can be used to help describe, explain or solve a problem. It can make predictions, recognize speech and faces, improve drug development, and support investment and business decision-making.
UWM data scientists work in disciplines across six of the university’s schools and colleges.
Marquette three semesters ago launched an undergraduate degree in data science, and so far has 30 students. The university expects to grow that number to 50 students in the next couple of semesters. Marquette also has master's and doctoral programs that train students for research and data science.
Why businesses need data scientists
Data scientists not only understand mathematical algorithms and computer coding, they apply scientific research techniques.
They also are expected to understand the needs of the business that employs them to hone in on a question or problem, and explain and visualize whatever the data tells them.
Confidentiality of clients is protected in the use of any data collected, Gouverneur said. If it's collected by Northwestern Mutual, all identifying information is wiped, and clients are asked for permission first.
Northwestern Mutual formed its first formal data analytics team as part of its IT department in 2013. It's evolved into an Enterprise Data & Analytics department.
The company has about 5,600 employees; about 400 of them are Marquette alums and 900 are UWM alums.
Universities across the country are starting data-science programs to meet growing demand.
How the idea got started
Gouverneur said the concept for the institute was first floated about 18 months ago as part of the larger discussion about the need for Milwaukee to become a technology hub.
Milwaukee has ranked second-to-last, ahead of Pittsburgh, for the third straight year in startup activity as measured by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, one of the country’s leading entrepreneurship advocacy and research organizations. Wisconsin ranks 50th among the 50 states.
Last October, Northwestern Mutual and Aurora Health Care announced they would each commit $5 million to venture funds that will invest in startup companies in the Milwaukee area.
The two new funds — Northwestern Mutual's Cream City Venture Capital and Aurora Health Care's InvestMKE — could spur other large companies in the Milwaukee area to set up similar funds, company officials said.
That announcement was followed In November by another that Northwestern Mutual would partner with Rockwell Automation, Kohl's, Baird and Milwaukee Institute to provide funding and other services to support early-stage startup companies based in Milwaukee.
That partnership will cover operating costs for gBETA, a seven-week mentoring and coaching accelerator program that will be held multiple times at UWM in 2018 and 2019. The program is led by gener8tor, a startup accelerator.
Book your tickets for the Data Science Summit here:https://www.thedatasciencesummit.com/book-your-tickets/