How India can reclaim its leadership in data analysis
The nation that taught the world to count sensibly and how to use data for efficient management much before the Christian era has seemingly lost its way.
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In 2010 the University of Delhi managed to persuade a major Mumbai based corporate institution, in the realm of finance, to visit the campus for recruitment purposes. This corporation was in the process of expanding its setup and wished to hire graduates who had some inkling of how to handle simple data. It had a few hundred openings.
The requirements of data literacy were basic and the package offered by the firm was attractive. The University advertised widely amongst its undergraduate institutions and eventually, 1,200 of the best resumes were shortlisted. The firm flew over a whole team from Mumbai for the recruitment process. The University did not disclose the college affiliations and the social backgrounds of the students. At the end of the lengthy process of interviewing each candidate, the firm deemed only three students to be suitable for selection. The main reason for this rejection rate was the inability of the students to understand basic issues related to the handling of data.
The above incident is just the tip of the iceberg. The nation that taught the world to count sensibly and how to use data for efficient management much before the Christian era has seemingly lost its way. In fact, Chanakya invented several modern ideas and concepts of statistics and through them used data for better governance.
This inability to analyse and communicate elementary aspects of data causes India irreparable harm in economic terms. Have our institutions of learning woken up to the looming challenge? The answer is resoundingly in the negative. This is easily verified by visiting the websites of most universities across the length and breadth of the land. There are very few exceptions to my assertion on this neglect of data literacy. Just how necessary is this need to inculcate our youth with simple data skills? A very recent article in the Harvard Business Review lays enormous emphasis on and demonstrates the use of basic data literacy to boost the efficiency of any organisation.
Bonus for students
However, the ability to understand and analyse basic data is just as important outside the world of business. The realms of knowledge dealing with the streams of the social sciences and the humanities are being rejuvenated with new ways of looking at problems and issues through a data lens. In India about 100 years ago, a Britisher by the name of Grierson made significant discoveries dealing with variation in language over geographical distances based on simple data.
It is in this context that I laud wholeheartedly the decision of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to launch a new stand-alone subject at the senior secondary level (+2) with the course title of ‘Applied Mathematics’. This paper deals entirely with data analysis. More importantly, it does so in practical terms that have great utility in our daily lives and professions. I have been told reliably that the paper has been accorded academic recognition by the Department of Commerce of the University of Delhi. I expect and urge other departments dealing with social science, humanities and the sciences to follow suit. Such a subject shall add a new dimension to the academic profiles of students at the school-leaving stage.
CBSE has introduced a new stand-alone subject ‘Applied Mathematics’ at the senior secondary level. (Getty Images)
I also hope that other universities in India shall follow the example of Delhi University and accord recognition to this subject for the purposes of admission. To my mind, this is a far more useful subject than all the mathematics that is being taught in the regular CBSE mathematics course. I do have a humble suggestion for the CBSE. They may consider renaming this subject as ‘Understanding Data’ or ‘Data Analysis for Practical Uses’ since the current title of ‘Applied Mathematics’ does not convey the contents of the course in appropriate terms. I would also like to request the CBSE to permit students who shall opt for the regular mathematics subject to also take this ‘Applied Mathematics’ course. One of the very interesting features of this ‘Applied Mathematics’ course is the interplay it allows between a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel and practical applications of data analysis. If school students acquire reasonable familiarity with such spreadsheet-based software it shall just as good.
Good step by CBSE
There is a telling demonstration showing the power of what can be done in such a course. In the world of data, there is a maxim known as Benford’s Law. This law prescribes the manner in which naturally occurring data sets shall behave. In other words, the law allows us to detect fraud in large data sets. I looked closely at what the CBSE course prescribes and I found using simple techniques from Excel one can easily teach students how to use Benford’s Law to check the authenticity of large data sets. I set this task to a very young mind in the context of the global data related to the current Covid-19 crisis. He was able to demonstrate, easily, that this data, as displayed on a much referred global website, is credible data since it follows Benford’s Law to a tee. There are other very useful practical applications that can be performed through the set of exercises as given in the CBSE syllabus. All in all, a very commendable action by the CBSE.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)