11/21/2011 08:45 am ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

The Power of Analytics: Students Need These Skills to Solve the World's Grand Challenges

When I attended the City College of New York, I was sneaking into the computer lab well past midnight so I could use the computers, those foreign entities that liberal arts students did not need to interact with.

Today, we've entered the age of what we call "Big Data," where students in all fields will need new skills that take advantage of computer-based analytics if we're going to find fact-based solutions to the grand challenges of the world, such as water, energy, and food shortages, global warming, and many more global issues.

New tools are needed to deal with vast amounts of data now being acquired that speaks to these issues. Every day, we wade through streams of texts, tweets, Facebook updates, PowerPoint downloads, Excel spreadsheets, traffic data, population statistics, etc.

What's sobering is that the barrage of data we're dealing with now is just a trickle compared to the flood that's coming. Social networking, cloud computing, sensors on water meters, supply chains, even sensors within our own bodies, all create vast streams of data.

As someone who cares about our educational system, and who has worked to make it more competitive, I think this data deluge makes one thing clear: students will need new skills in analytics. We need to make analytics a basic, essential piece of the general education process if we're ever going to make sense of all the data in our everyday lives.

In the past, studying analytics was the province of math geeks and computer science majors. Going forward, almost every profession in every field, whether it's healthcare, finance, retail, engineering or energy, will need to be able to manipulate these new streams of data. Not simply to process this information, but to come up with creative new ways of sifting through this data, pulling out unexpected insights, and innovating around these observations.

Students need hands-on experience in using data in their own studies, whether it's the classics or chemistry. They need to be familiar with the most up-to-date tools and concepts that allow them to hunt for patterns and statistical correlations in these streams of data.

Perhaps yet to be apparent, analytics applied to "Big Data" will be as transformative as the advent of the industrial or digital age. Society has never been able to collect as much information nor apply as much computing power and collective analysis to it. Analytics is already ushering in new ways of thinking about and optimizing our world.

In this changing world, analytics will be a key competitive advantage, a skill that sets employees, companies, and potentially even countries, apart. The impact of analytics applied to Big Data has already been seen on many fronts, from optimizing an entire city's transportation system, to understanding disease recognition and treatment. Those who cannot practice this new "art" will be ill equipped to compete and potentially, will be left behind. We cannot allow yet another digital divide to develop because of inaction.

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