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Universities in Hong Kong

Hong Kong university offers new data science programme, eyeing tech industry boom

With city – and many global industries – increasingly prizing data skills, HKUST launches specialised course

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 7:18pm

Nora Ngai Nok-yiu has been studying computer programming since secondary school and decided to do an engineering degree when she joined the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology last year.

But when the institution decided to launch a new undergraduate programme specialising in data science — using scientific techniques and theories to extract knowledge from data — Ngai jumped at the opportunity to choose it as her major.

During the four-year bachelor of science in data science and technology course, Ngai will sharpen her skills in statistics and coding, among other things, to solve complex data problems.

“Many industries, both public and private organisations, are using more data,” 19-year-old Ngai said. “They will need more professionals to sort the data and to find useful information from it. I think the career prospects are great, so I chose this programme.”

Jointly run by HKUST’s maths and computer science departments, the programme – introduced this year – is the first in the city to cater to undergraduates and to have a strong tech focus, its associate director, Professor Wilfred Ng Siu-hung, said.

“There may be many data science programmes in Hong Kong, but they are designed by business faculties,” he explained. “These programmes lack technical basis and a solid theoretical foundation, and their focus is more on commercial decisions and application.”

HKUST has created the course as more universities worldwide offer degree courses in data science and big data analytics, fuelled by growing demand for such skills. Big data is increasingly being used to improve decision-making within companies and also drive artificial intelligence initiatives to offer better customer service, for example.

The Hong Kong government has been trying to turn the city into an innovation and technology hub, including by handing the Science Park HK$40 billion (US$5.1 billion) to invest.

Ng said the university realised there was a “pressing demand” for data scientists around the world, with more companies owning a huge amount of data and needing professionals to do real-time analysis.

The demand is huge
Daniel Lau, Silverstrand Executive Search

Daniel Lau, a senior consultant from Silverstrand Executive Search, said financial institutions used to be the main sector relying heavily on data analytics, but many other sectors in recent years were starting to seek those skills.

“Everything from media, fast-moving consumer goods to retail banks are looking at customer data, to analyse and draw conclusions that help make business decisions,” he noted. “The demand is huge.”

Lau said there was special demand for data cleansing — the process of removing inaccurate and irrelevant records for analysis — and data management, which includes looking after the structure of data systems.

A report by the inter-governmental forum Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), published last July, identified a skills shortage in data science and analytics across its 21 member economies. It said China was short of more than 1.5 million data scientists in 2015.

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Earlier this year, professional networking site LinkedIn released its list of the 10 most promising jobs, with data scientists on the list. The site said workers in the sector could expect a median base annual salary of US$113,000, and job openings increasing 45 per cent year on year.

Ng said HKUST planned to offer 40 places for the data science and technology degree programme annually. Students can only choose it in their second year – hopefuls will need to qualify for either the science or engineering faculties, complete an introductory course on computer science and then compete for a place on the specialised programme.

This year, 149 students applied and the course eventually took on 41, whose average cumulative grade point average was 3.3 out of 4.3.

Kelvin Lau, a manager with recruitment agency Robert Walters, predicted graduates from the programme would find it easy to get a job.

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While salaries for entry-level data analysts in Hong Kong with no experience ranged between HK$15,000 and HK$18,000 – similar to graduates in other fields – Lau said he was positive those with data science degrees could see their pay packets expand more quickly once they had worked for about three years.

Daniel Lau urged data science graduates to remain in the Hong Kong workforce and be part of the changes taking place in the business world, with more firms tapping the power of big data.

“If you enter the firm at this stage, you’ll be … a key part of the change within the business to understand what data can do for them,” he said.