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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Taking the lead in data science

John Taylor, president-elect of the IFoA, reflects on the growth of big data – and why actuaries should be at the heart of it



Data science, in all its manifestations, is rarely out of the public eye these days. Why has it become such a hot topic, though, and what role should actuaries play in understanding and explaining it?

The emergence of data science

To understand the emergence of data science we need to consider a couple of things. First, the ‘comet tail’ of data we all generate as we navigate the modern world is increasing exponentially. Every time we interact online, purchase an item, travel or share our content, the volume of data we create proliferates at an incredible rate. In 2015, for example, 90% of the data then in existence had been created in the previous two years – a rate that continues to accelerate.

Additionally, the rapid development of data science seems set to upend a host of business, governmental and social norms, requiring careful navigation from those skilled in risk mitigation, change management and long-term planning in an evolving world.

New challenges, trusted skills

Of course, it could be said that actuaries are the original data scientists, with an approach to ‘big data’ that stretches back to the 1700s. Indeed, the fundamental techniques that enable the modern practice of data science are not necessarily new, and many of our members would instantly recognise much of the mathematical ‘wiring’ that underpins concepts such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

What makes the contribution of the profession uniquely valuable to the emerging field of data science is our public interest mission, our grasp of the statistical underpinnings of data science, and our ability to interpret and construct value from data. 

This means that we’re well placed to consider the long-term implications of a world in which the products of data science inform not just our traditional sectors of insurance, pensions, risk, investment and healthcare, but also drive policy decisions, political outcomes and social trends right across the world. These powerful tools can be used for a variety of purposes, and the public demand for the ethical implementation of data science is high.

Taking the lead

During the summer and autumn of 2018, IFoA Council set out what it called its ‘Fit for the future’ agenda, which sought to look at how Associates and Fellows could best adapt to the emergence of new fields, new ways of working and new practices.

As a result, we’re putting in the groundwork now in the form of our revised qualification structure and new curriculum. Additionally, the IFoA also has a dedicated data science hub page on its website in recognition of the increasing importance of the subject to our profession. 

At the end of February, the IFoA also held its its first virtual data science conference, which was extremely well-received, with over 3,000 people participating. Presentations from the conference are still available to view on the website by registering under ‘Book now’. Please do take a look. We believe that data science demonstrates the way in which the profession is already stepping out of the shadows – taking the lead in addressing the issues that will shape our global society while deploying our skills and knowledge to safeguard the public interest.