“Exciting times,” Erika Fille T. Legara succinctly explained her big move next month from Singapore to Manila to head the Asian Institute of Management (AIM)’s soon-to-be-launched Master’s of Science in Data Science program, the first of its kind in the Philippines.
A scientist with the Singapore government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) since 2012, Legara has taken part in data-driven research on urban systems, supply chain and logistics, among others.
She was part of a team that developed a machine learning model that predicts how improvements in land-use and amenities affect the number of users of each of the city state’s subway stations. She also helped build a machine learning model that predicts the water level in Angat Dam, which supplies about 90 percent of Metro Manila’s water, six months ahead.
Asked why she’s leaving Singapore, which has the resources and infrastructure to allow her to carry out cutting-edge research, Legara said she wants to be right here in Manila just as the data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies take off in the Philippines.
“If it’s the first formal MS program (in Data Science), I want to be a part of it,” she told Entrepreneur Philippines early this month at the sidelines of a Department of Science and Technology forum on artificial intelligence (AI).
The DOST is investing heavily to train computer scientists, programmers and software developers who will build artificial intelligence technologies and commercialize them for both the local and global markets.
Without knowing it, many people already encounter data science, which is the technology behind the recommendation systems for Amazon, Netflix and Spotify. But Legara says data science can also be used in banking to reduce fraud or in manufacturing to monitor machine health and predict when maintenance should be done.
She cited the example of an auto parts distributor that was able to boost revenue by 30 percent after it hired junior data scientists to study 20 million transactions and figure out which products should be discounted to match historical purchase patterns.
Legara has a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and a doctorate in physics—all from the University of the Philippines where her general weighted average grade was a perfect 1.0 (with 1.0 as the highest grade point) in the PhD program. Apart from part-time teaching stints at the UP’s National Institute of Physics from 2006 to 2011, she has worked in Singapore for most of her professional life.
Despite her academic training in the purest of the natural sciences, Legara has a keen appreciation of the need for data scientists to learn to communicate their findings and recommendations effectively to company CEOs and directors as well as to policy makers for those working in the public sector.
“You need to know how to speak the language of business because at the end of the day, your results need to help their processes, improve their processes to increase profits or reduce costs. You cannot just give them numbers,” she told participants of the DOST symposium on AI.
“In fact at A*STAR, we hire software engineers to build prototypes. We need to make sure that the interface is easy for (users) to use because you’re going to give your results to someone who’s not a data scientist. So you can just imagine how difficult that is if you can’t communicate or if you don’t know their language,” she added.
While the curriculum for AIM’s Data Science Program has yet to be firmed up and submitted to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) for approval, Legara wants it to include business courses to help the school’s future data science graduates communicate with the rest of the business enterprise.
“When we build a data science curriculum we’re going to inject about six unit of business—just the bare minimum—so that you can talk to people and understand what the use cases are and you can identify the specific methods and models that you need to use so you can deliver the service very well,” she said.
She also told Entrepreneur Philippines she was thinking of developing a two-track curriculum for the data science program: one for graduates of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the other for graduates of other courses with at least two years of relevant work experience and a proficiency with Microsoft Excel, the spreadsheet software.
Roel Landingin is the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur PH