Decoding Jeff Jonas, Wizard of Big Data
Jonas solves problems the high-tech way — mining the “data warehouse in his head.”
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Jonas is a data scientist, a member of an elite cadre of scientists able to pan the accumulating silt of data for gold… His inventions (he has about a hundred to his credit) are based on programs that “data mine” torrents of information into usable form formulated with a cunning purpose: What can the data tell you that you didn’t think to ask? The applications for these programs include fingering potential terrorists, catching fraudulent behavior in casinos, smoking out evidence of global money laundering, and reuniting families separated by natural disasters. He also created a newly hatched system that can potentially flag possible asteroid collisions over a 25-year arc.
Data scientist, the Harvard Business Review has said, is the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” It might be more instructive, though, to think of the data scientist as the cowboy of the 21st century, except instead of cows being wrangled, it’s information that gets rounded up and wrestled into shape. “And the herd keeps getting bigger,” adds James Cortada, a historian of computers and a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “The herd doesn’t consist of one kind of cow, but also hogs, giraffes, cockroaches, horses—and you have to make sense of the whole thing. The good news is [the computer scientist] now has the tools to do that: He has a lasso that works as well on a cockroach as it does on a cow.” The cows, hogs, and cockroaches are different data sets. And analytics, the act of lassoing them, Cortada says, “is about connecting the dots.”