Four Useful Books for Learning Data Science

January 15, 2016    books reading data-science

I was listening to an old episode of Partially Derivative, a podcast on data science and the news. One of the hosts mentioned that we’re now living in the “golden age of data science instruction” and learning materials. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Each month, most publishers seem to have another book on the subject and people are writing exciting blog posts about what they’re learning and doing.I wanted to outline a few of the books that helped me along the way, in the order I approached them. Hopefully, you can use them to gain a broader perspective of the field and perhaps as a resource to pass on to others trying to learn.

Learning from Data

I first found Learning from Data through Caltech’s course on the subject. I still think it’s an excellent text but I’m not sure if I would recommend it to the absolute beginner. (To someone who is just coming to the subject, I would probably recommend the next choice down on the list.)

However, I have a Master’s degree in mathematics so I was familiar with the background material in linear algebra and probability as well as the notation used. Learning from Data taught me that there was actual mathematical theory behind a lot of the algorithms employed in data science.

Most algorithms are chosen for their pragmatic application, but they also have features in and of themselves (such as how they bound the space of possible hypotheses about the data) that can help determine their effectiveness on data. There’s also a general theory for how to approach the analysis of these algorithms. At the time of reading, a lot of it was still a bit over my head, but it got me incredibly curious about the field itself.

Now, understanding a few things about the theory is great, but most of the time, people want to know what it can actually do.

Data Mining Techniques: For Marketing, Sales, and Customer Relationship Management

I’ll admit to only having had a cursory understanding of what was possible before I read Data Mining Techniques. I knew that the most widely used algorithms were used for assessing risk, like credit scores. However, I didn’t know much about how you could make gains in the world of marketing using data science techniques.

I appreciated that the authors have a lot of experience in the field, especially experience that predates most of the growth in big data these days. This book makes it clear that many of the most useful algorithms have been around and in use for decades. The authors also offer some explanations from the direct marketing case (print magazines and physical mail) that I hadn’t considered, such as ranking algorithms, which were originally used to prioritize a list of people to contact because of the high costs of mailing paper to people.

More than anything, I liked the breadth of the topics, since they cover just about every form of marketing algorithm and do a great job of giving you a high level view of why they matter.

You won’t walk away from this book knowing how to implementing everything they talk about, but you will get a sense for which algorithms are suited for particular tasks.

This book gave me a better way to think through the initial phases of a project, but I still needed some help in learning how to communicate about data and how to fit it directly into the business context.

Data Science for Business

I read through this one while I was on vacation (yes, I know, I’m that type of geek). That didn’t stop me from soaking up a lot of information from it about how data science applies to a company trying to use these models. Most of the book is focused on helping you think through how to operationalize the process of running and managing a data science project and what outcomes you might expect from the effort.

Beyond that, I think it taught me how to communicate better about data at a company. Being able to talk about the many months it will take to bring a project into fruition and weigh it against alternatives is the bread and butter of working at a company that wants to make money. Moreover, if you believe that a particular project is the right choice, you need to be able to back up that choice by communicating about the benefits.

I want to say that this is a very “bottom-line” type of book, but that’s okay to hear about some of the time. Data science doesn’t always have to be about the hottest technique or the biggest technology if your priorities include keeping your costs below your revenue. However, I still didn’t learn much about getting my hands dirty with the data on a day-to-day basis. For that, I had to rely on the final book I present.

Applied Predictive Modeling

This is a book on predictive modeling in R and on using a package that the author developed for doing that. This isn’t simply about someone tooting their own horn because caret is a quality piece of software. Overall, I think that even if you don’t end up using R as your go-to tool for analyzing data, you’ll still learn a lot from this book. It thoroughly demonstrates the power caret can offer you in a project, to the point that you’ll seek the same functionality in your tool of choice (or hopefully build its equivalent for us).

Caret is a package that offers a consistent interface for just about any predictive task (classification or regression) that you could ask for. One issue some people have with R packages is that the interface for algorithms isn’t very consistent. Learning how to use one package won’t always lead to the same understanding in a completely different package. Caret addresses that by giving you the same way to set up a modeling task for many different algorithms. Moreover, it also automates several tasks like:

  • Data splitting into training and test sets
  • Data transformations like normalization or power transforms
  • Modeling tuning and parameter selection

Essentially, it makes working in R a lot like using Scikit Learn (an excellent library itself) but with many more options and model implementations.

So that’s all you need, right? Just read a couple of books and you’re on your way? Not quite. You’ll actually have to apply some of this and learn from it. Perhaps next time you’re in a meeting discussing priorities for your company, you will need to frame the conversation about your next data project and directing the data effort toward your business goals (Data Science for Business). When you’re brainstorming possible things that you could try to predict and use in a marketing campaign, you will need to outline the possible techniques and what they could offer you (Data Mining Techniques). If you’re evaluating candidate algorithms for their ability to perform the task accurately, you will need to gauge their effectiveness from a theoretical (Learning from Data) and practical (Applied Predictive Modeling) standpoint.

I hope this helps you apply data science at work and gives you perspective in the field. Also, if you’re not a follower on Twitter, please follow me @mathcass.