Entering the golden age of data science with mathematics

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An interview with Prof. Alexander Rinnooy Kan and Prof. Gerrit van Dijk

We had the pleasure of speaking with two luminaries in the fields of mathematics and data science: Professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan and Professor Gerrit van Dijk. The venue: a warm and elegant study in Het Maagdenhuis, a University of Amsterdam building located in the city’s buzzling Spui street.

Named the most influential person in the Netherlands for three consecutive years by De Volkskrant, Professor Rinnooy Kan is a renowned Dutch mathematician and business leader. Professor Gerrit van Dijk is best known for his work in the fields of harmonic analysis and representation theory, he worked at University of Leiden and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Today, both of them are active in the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities, Prof. Rinnooy Kan as Chairman and Prof. van Dijk as the Secretary of Natural Sciences. 

Professor Gerrit van Dijk

Professor Gerrit van Dijk

ORTEC Consulting Group: What is the role of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities?

The Society was founded in 1752 by a number of notable citizens from the city of Haarlem to create awareness of the positive influence science can have on society at large. Its goal is to bridge the gap that exists between the two. Half of the Society’s members have a scientific background, the other half are citizens who are interested in contributing to the organization’s mission. Our activities include an award program which recognizes scientists – starting with secondary school pupils – in a diversity of disciplines, as well as the organization of lectures and scientific field trips.

ORTEC Consulting Group: How do you make society at large more aware about the successes and innovations of the scientific community, particularly in the fields of mathematics and data science?

Organizations like the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities facilitate an exchange between science and society. But creating awareness is also a challenge for scientific journalism. It is certainly not easy, but if you compare the level of journalistic contribution to what it was 30 years ago, there’s been much progress. Knowledge is way more accessible that it was before. Today, for instance, you can access Richard Feynman’s lectures on physics online, they are fully digitized and available with the click of a button. Something students could only dream of 10-20 years ago.

ORTEC Consulting Group: Speaking of students, it is widely recognized in the industry that there is an increasing need for talent. How do you motivate young people to go into fields like mathematics or econometrics?

All it takes is a good teacher, especially during a student’s secondary school years. A good teacher shows you why mathematics is important and why it’s fun. Besides this, moments like the time when you run across your first mathematical insight will keep inspiring you to use math in order to tackle real world problems, and contribute to society as a whole. Math is manifestly useful and practical. Mathematicians are not part of the argument at the beginning but part of the result at the end.

ORTEC Consulting Group: How can you convince business leaders of the importance of math?

Professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan. Photo by Dirk Hol

Professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan.
Photo by Dirk Hol

The way ORTEC does it. ORTEC has been very successful at showing the results, especially in logistics. It becomes rather easy to demonstrate the value if you can show the results. The mathematics is fun, but the applications are very tangible and convincing. This is what will drive business leaders. They might have no idea how you do it, but if it works and you can prove that it works they are ready to listen. Besides this, there is an enormous track record of success in the mathematics of planning. Without math, computer science or data science is nothing.

ORTEC Consulting Group: How do you convince them of the importance of leveraging big data for business improvement?

Things are becoming so complicated that you need data scientists to solve them. You convince them by shedding light on the advantages, illustrating how companies can benefit from scientific developments and translating these into tools that can solve real world problems.

What do you see as the most important challenges for companies in the next 5 years in the field of data science?

The biggest challenge is to build awareness of the opportunities that exist and to build at least an idea of the number of data that is available and perhaps largely ignored and underutilized.

For instance, supermarkets introduced point of sale data applications since the 1980s but they are still using only a fraction of that information. There are many other examples.

There is so much about the world around us that we don’t try to get a handle on – science allows you to do that. Now it’s up to the innovators to help companies explore this wonderful new world. We’re living in the golden age of data science.

Professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan is University Professor of Economics and Business Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He graduated from Leiden University in 1972 and obtained his PhD in Mathematics from the University of Amsterdam in 1976. His current academic focus lies in the study of change processes at the micro and macro level.

Professor Gerrit van Dijk obtained his PhD in Mathematics from the University of Utrecht in 1969. He was a staff member of the University of Utrecht from 1964 to 1969 and from 1970 to 1972. He also lectured at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton throughout 1969 and worked as a professor of Mathematics at Leiden University from 1972 to 2004.

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