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The GW Hatchet

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Jacob Garber: Go “big data” or go home

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How does Facebook know to advertise all of your favorite sweaters with kittens embroidered on the sleeves? Is it magic? Is the NSA tracking your Google history?

No. (Well, maybe the latter.) The answer is “big data” analytics, and the GW School of Business is at the front lines of this new discipline.

The school will launch a Master of Science in business analytics, or big data, this fall and bring on tech giant IBM to support the 10-month program. The program will help graduate students learn how to analyze huge amounts of digital data to better understand markets and consumers.

Offering courses ranging from sports analytics to data warehousing, this degree embodies GW’s push for interdisciplinary education and primes students for job potential. But by limiting the discipline to a graduate program, the business school is stunting its progress as an innovator, and as a truly interdisciplinary college.

That’s why the business school should begin offering an undergraduate concentration in big data.

With the recent firing of Dean Doug Guthrie, the business school is poised for new leadership and direction for its curriculum. Although Guthrie’s removal was due to overspending, an undergraduate big data concentration wouldn’t be terribly expensive – it could rely on the resources from the master’s program, including its support from IBM.

And considering the increasingly competitive job market for college graduates, it is only logical that the business school makes this education available on the undergraduate level. The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company projects that the emergence of big data will open 1.5 million business management positions by 2018.

GW is hardly known as a pathway to Wall Street, so it would serve both the business school and its students by investing in this niche undergraduate discipline. Students will be able to take advantage of the earnings potential of the field without paying for graduate school, and the University will be able to further its goal of connecting its colleges through interdisciplinary education.

Many people cringe at the word “interdisciplinary” – one of those higher education buzzwords like “synergy” that makes an entire room roll its eyes. But to understand big data, you have to tie together business, statistics, and computer science.

Associate professor of decision sciences Srinivas Prasad, who is running the graduate program, told me in an email that “big data/analytics by its very nature demands an interdisciplinary approach,” and they have designed the curriculum around this concept.

Bringing big data education, which is typically a graduate discipline, to the undergraduate level is completely feasible. There are already several big data undergraduate programs, such the University of Iowa’s new business analytics and information systems concentration, housed within its business school.

Prasad, too, believes that many undergraduates have the skills to tackle big data. He explains that although a background in science, technology, engineering, math or business is useful for analytics, “applications of big data exist in several fields, and opportunities abound for people from a variety of disciplines.”

Big data will only become more pervasive among undergraduate colleges, and GW has the resources to implement such a program. The business school only has so long to become a pioneer in undergraduate big data – they’d be wise not to squander this opportunity.

The writer, a senior majoring in English and creative writing, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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