What Matters To Me: Stephanie Sy
Why data science has the potential to reshape society
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
Stephanie Sy is the founder of data science consultancy Thinking Machines, which helps organisations mine their existing data to gain fresh insights. The Philippine company, which also has operations in Singapore, has worked for clients including the World Bank, Ayala Corporation and Unicef, while Stephanie herself has addressed the United Nations about technological innovation. Here, she describes her work in her own words.
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Data science is the practice of taking large quantities of data we have access to right now and pulling insights out of it. The industry started more or less because of e-commerce. Pre-Amazon, why would you need this, right? But now you have your phone and it captures a lot of data about you. You interact with Facebook, WhatsApp, [Southeast Asian e-commerce leader] Lazada and many more. Every digital interaction you have leaves a data trail. Based on those data trails, people in our industry can understand what drives customer behaviour better. Through this we can create very personalised promotions or interventions targeted to individuals. There’s a data gathering part, a data engineering part, a machine learning part and a data visualisation part. Underlying all of that is data strategy—how do you, as an organisation, make better decisions about your customers or operations with the data you have available? It’s not inaccessible; it’s just a very new industry.
Thinking Machines is a data science startup that builds machine learning and data platforms for organisations. Our primary goal is to create a data culture for companies, and to do that, we work on one client at a time and help them understand and build out very practical and useful machine learning platforms. We do a lot of public sector work; what we do there is build AI models on top of waste data and satellite imagery to generate things like poverty and population indicators across the Philippines.
My favourite part of the job is hearing someone’s problem and coming up with a way to solve it that feels almost magical to them. Being able to do things like using satellite data to predict and infer the population percentage in deep poverty, and being able to do that in almost real time—that for me feels pretty amazing. You’re taking a process that normally takes seven years at the Philippine Statistics Authority to get results and putting it into something that can do the same in a month. We also help organisations use data to make better decisions. Just being able to see them make these decisions on solid data instead of gut feel or who the biggest person in the room is, that feels so satisfying personally.
See also: I Am Generation T: Stephanie Sy
I’m motivated by a couple of things. One is how the next 10 years or even the next five are going to be very pivotal for the future of this country, not just in the tech space but in general. For one, the BPO [business process outsourcing] industry is changing very fast. It’s been the source of revenue and job opportunities, and that’s changing with more automation and AI. Second, climate change is real and it is coming for us. We’re an island nation. Once in a lifetime typhoons now come every five years or so—how many of our islands will still be above water? I really care about helping build this new data science industry in the Philippines because I feel like the work we put in during the next few years will have a huge impact on the future.
Stephanie Sy is attending the Gen.T Asia Summit on April 3-4 in Hong Kong. A celebration of the most disruptive people and ideas, the summit will bring together 200 of Asia's Leaders of Tomorrow. To apply to attend, visit the Gen.T Asia Summit website.