Dominic Jann’s Introduction to Statistics class near the end of his undergraduate days at the University of Oklahoma was terrible, if you consider the instructor he had. “The professor was always tardy and didn’t show up for half the classes,” said Jann, noting that even when he did, his attitude toward the class was bitter and sarcastic.
But the professor’s poor performance couldn’t diminish the fascination Jann felt using data and statistical software to answer real-world questions. “One assignment involved using meteorological data to predict the likelihood of thunderstorms popping up over Tulsa,” said Jann, who was about to get his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. “That’s when it just clicked. My mathematical knowledge could actually be used in a way that was meaningful.”
All of a sudden there was another career option than being a math teacher or doing something unrelated to math: graduate school.
“This was a very fearful proposition,” said Jann, who had a job as general manager at a fast food restaurant. “Now I was going to become a student again, in a career I knew absolutely nothing about, making less than half what I was currently making. The idea seemed ludicrous at the time.”
But he forged ahead, entering graduate school at Texas A&M University, where he earned his PhD in statistics in 2012. His research in the area of social network analysis and probabilistic record matching led him to Dr. Michael Speed, a member of the faculty who was also a consultant for SAS, and ultimately to his current job in the SAS® Solutions OnDemand Development group.
“I use statistics and SAS to help customers answer questions about their data in ways that will allow them to make well-informed decisions about their future,” said Jann, a Senior Associate Data Scientist/Analytical Consultant.
One such customer was the Department of Buildings in a large US city.
“At a high level, this project was a massive data integration undertaking,” Jann said. “At a lower level, we were using their complaint data to assist them in resource allocation. DOB inspectors could only get to about 70 percent of the complaints coming across their desk, and they needed to know which ones they should be targeting.”
Taking historical information about the building and the information in each new complaint, the SAS team was able to predict the probability that:
- The department could access the premises to investigate the complaint.
- The complaint was a valid one.
- The complaint was of a severe nature warranting immediate action.
That’s just one example of the ways statistics can be used to help people understand data in ways they never thought possible. “Sports teams figure out which players are worth investing in, governments regulate traffic flow, meteorologists study weather patterns and provide alerts to people much sooner than they otherwise could,” Jann said. "I could go on and on.”
Jann is excited that the field of statistics is “trending up,” citing more investment in Statistics and Analytics by universities. He likes to think of statisticians as interpreters. “We can speak the language of data and the language of business.”
“What keeps me excited about this field is the juxtaposition of old and new,” Jann said. “So many of the analyses we perform date back to the early- and mid-20th century, but then new analyses are always popping up and even new applications for old analyses.”
What should our readers know about the field of statistics?
Jann: Statistics can be applied to practically anything. You can use statistics to determine at what point your baby will start walking, given at what age they started crawling, their weight, the muscle content of their legs, and so on. You can also use statistics to determine whether or not someone should receive a car loan, given their credit history, the amount and duration of the loan, and so on.
Statistics are not just for the nerdy. The image people have of statisticians is a bit skewed. All kinds of people use statistics for all kinds of reasons. People who analyze their budget, people who modify their route home from work depending on what time they leave, or even people who choose to eat lunch at a time slightly different from the time most people go are all using statistics to some degree to make a better-informed decision. We are always analyzing data on the fly.
Everyone should be careful when using statistics. As was said in Spider Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is true in statistics. This is a very powerful weapon that we use to analyze data in ways that will give customers insight into their own operations, whether they are internal optimization or customer marketing strategies. But care must be taken to make sure that these analyses are performed correctly, to make sure that assumptions are met.
Who is your favorite statistician?
Jann: I don’t really have a favorite statistician, but I have a famous statistician quote I like by John Tukey (who has been called the father of modern exploratory data analysis and data visualization). It was cited by the professor in the first course I took in graduate school: “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard.” When I heard that quote, I realized I was in the right place.
What is your favorite statistics blog or journal?
Jann: I have two:
- Journal of the American Statistical Association.
- Biometrika (peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Oxford University Press).
What do you like to do outside of work?
Jann: I like to spend time with my family – my wife Erika and daughter Sofia. Watching my two-year-old daughter grow is a hobby in itself. I also like to watch sports – I played baseball and tennis as a kid and I enjoy watching college football and professional basketball ... and attending a live baseball game! And, I like to read. My wife and I read aloud to each other at bedtime. We just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and have started reading The Lord of the Rings. It’s like a book club for the two of us.