What I know about data science in the UAE: Baghdad Gherras

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Data science in the UAE is just beginning to the scratch the surface of what’s possible.

That’s one of the key points recently made by a leader in the country’s data science community, Baghdad Gherras.

Gherras, a Dubai-based French-Algerian expat, is a digital data strategist who serves as deputy head of Davidson Innovation Center. He is enthusiastic about how initiatives like Smart Dubai will utilize data science to improve lives.

Baghdad Gherras hosts the UAE Data Science meetup
regularly in Dubai at Innovation 5 Centre.
(Image via Elias Jabbe)

Speaking on the sidelines of one of the recent UAE data science meetups that he organized at Dubai Internet City’s Innovation 5 Centre, Gherras shared his thoughts on where data science is heading in the UAE.

People don’t know what it is. There is a lot of confusion between business intelligence, analytics, big data and data science. So, you can imagine how people react when it comes to artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning or deep learning. Rather than giving technical presentations loaded with complex terminology, you have to define it by saying what data science isn’t.

Data science isn’t about forecasting. Data Science is not a reporting tool dedicated to information about customers. It is not about forecasting a large amount of data or R&D. It is about the convergence of scientific methods and data knowledge discovery, like mathematics, statistics, computer sciences and artificial intelligence algorithms.  

It is more than a buzzword. I have heard many CIOs saying that data science is hype, or a buzzword. I think that is because it is referenced so frequently at events and conferences. For them, it’s just a new way to sell old stuff. We need to make them understand that this is a breakthrough revolution and that this industry will have a tremendous impact on their performance. I should point out that most of the Silicon Valley business models are based on data science - think about how Netflix and Amazon make recommendations for you.

People in the UAE are fast learners. UAE residents know better than anybody how to embrace change. Same goes in the corporate world: from the IT department to the board, they all recognize very quickly the importance of data science. The government agenda also helps a lot: there is strong support from the public sector and various public-private partnerships (PPPs). These include Dubai Smart Platform built by DU for Smart Dubai and RTA teaming with Careem to make online taxi booking possible in Dubai. People working in tech here have started taking training sessions, going to meetups and even taking part in ongoing projects for data science diplomas.

There are very few data scientists. With very few PhDs and STEM Students across the UAE, finding local data scientists is almost impossible. We had some discussions with universities in order to address this talent challenge, but it will take time. This represents one of the major obstacles for the local development of the sector. We’ve had to hire all of our scientists and data engineers from abroad, mainly from Europe.

It is undergoing constant evolution. One thing I see happening in the near future in the UAE is the establishment of corporate data labs within companies, in order foster innovation internally. I also expect more unicorns: with the availability of exceptional talent, startups will be able to create new business models and increase the efficiency of their services.

It is an Eldorado. The UAE, especially Dubai, will build amazing capabilities in data science in the coming years as it pursues its goal of becoming the smartest city on earth. The potential for growth is huge and I think that it will lead to a new era of innovation. The market is still in an early stage, but whoever invests time and builds strong alliances with technology providers will see good results.

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