Beyond the Horizon – Virtual Insights – Journeys to Data Science

Just a few short months ago, many of us would have been hard-pressed to imagine that Actuaries would be deprived of the possibility of attending an Insights sessions in person. Michael Storozhev reflects on the recent session on data science presented by Hong Kong based Australian actuaries.

As Australians started to dream about normality, with pubs opening, a trans-Tasman travel bubble on the horizon, and rumours of having to return to our offices – we were offered the opportunity for a Virtual Insights session on ‘Journeys to Data Science’ presented by actuaries working in Asia.

This Virtual Insights session gave us the diversity to look past our immediate Sydney and Melbourne contacts as presenters, and increase our horizons to hear what a panel of Hong Kong based Australian actuaries shared through their experiences and successes in the realm of data science.

Andy Yang, Convenor of the Institute’s Asia Subcommittee chaired the session and introduced us to five diverse data science actuaries.  Each had a personal journey that showed many opportunities exist for data science– from launching start-ups, to non-traditional fields and investments, to driving data-based change in some of Asia’s largest companies.

Andy reminded us that that Data Analytics is the third-largest practice area for members of the Actuaries Institute and continues to be a key area of interest for both CPD and opportunities. Interest was broad, with roughly equal attendance across Students, Associates and Fellows. Importantly, however, with so many attendees based in Australia, there remains considerable interest in what opportunities exist outside of Australia in our adjacent markets.

The panellists, Jeffrey Chan, Iris Lun, Kelvin Chan, Louis Lee and Frankie Chan, provided a candid account of how they found themselves in their current data-science focused roles. They discussed case studies into both successes and failures and importantly gave the opportunity for us to ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask data science practitioners. Throughout the panel discussion and the Q&A two key themes resonated.

First Steps

The hardest question is always one on how to begin. Google ‘learn data science’, and you are overwhelmed with 2.8 billion results, and the panel was quite open with how they made their starts in this field. Jeffrey’s message that as actuaries we already know more than we think strongly resonated – and we should utilise the strong analytics background our actuarial education provides as a competitive advantage.

Of interest for me was the advice to look internally when developing new skills. Iris dispelled the notion that established actuaries in traditional roles would struggle to transition to a data science role, especially from the expectations of employers, of fellows or experienced actuaries. Iris’s advice that we already know more than we think because of our knowledge of the industry and the existing use (or misuse) of data within sounded like a great starting point. The panel elaborated on this advising us to collaborate with internal teams, such as digital or marketing, where actuaries will find a use of their technical knowledge while looking to solve novel business problems, especially when ‘a trend can happen instantly’.

Kelvin provided a word of warning after his experience with completing a ten module Coursera course – with his key takeaway being that ‘it was just the tip of the iceberg’. While there is a huge amount of potential study possible in the area, it is still possible to take concrete steps forward in both learning and work, with no single pathway to success.

New Skills

While typically conversations around skills in data science start with the debate on using Python, R, Julia or some other language, the panel provided much more concrete and practical advice on what is success in Data Science. Jeffrey commented that the most useful language you could learn is that of engineers. Much of success relies on a healthy relationship and understanding between the engineering teams and data science teams – ‘if you don’t speak their language and make them your friend, your life will be miserable’. A jovial illustration he provided was about asking for a flushable toilet, which will result in something with a button, that flushes. However, this will otherwise be completely unusable without considering the experience hit the nail on the head to remind us that we need to be very specific in our requests for functionality.

It is easy to be excited and impressed by cutting-edge technology and modelling techniques. However, Louis brought the discussion back to earth by reiterating the need to understand and meet stakeholder requirements, how it is essential to understand why a business wants a data science problem solved – ‘before you deep dive into the data analytics, there has to be a purpose’.  For this, Jeffery gave an example from his experience of a model sitting on the shelve for almost two years so it could be validated side by side before being allowed to go into production – by which time it was already antiquated. Instead, if done correctly solving the business problem is achieved from through telling a story, as opposed to just building a model.

Frankie shared his journey from consultancy, banking to general insurance, before he developed his interests in frequent flyer loyalty program and later joined the airline industry. He reminded us that ‘as an alternative to becoming a hard-core data scientist, there is a niche role for the actuary to play in connecting the business and technical aspects given our multi-disciplinary training’. We could work with the others to formulate the business problems, understand the financial consequences, impact on the business and provide the solution.

In hindsight, for me, it is a surprise why we have not had more opportunities to connect with our international counterparts – exchanging ideas and finding the opportunity to mutually grow as actuarial professionals. The work of the Institute’s Asia Subcommittee encourages me that such opportunities will continue. The panel’s success reminds us all that in data science, looking forward never stops.

Success can only be found, in the words of Iris Lun, through “a love of learning… that becomes a life-long journey”.

This presentation and video are now available on the Actuaries Institute website. For further reading and materials developed by the Data Analytics Practice Committee, please visit the Actuaries in Data Analytics Microsite.

CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.

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