A June 2019 issue of the site selection publication Business Facilities featured New Orleans as one of 12 “sweet spots for high tech.” In 2018, global real estate powerhouse CBRE named New Orleans as one of the top 10 emerging tech markets. An analysis of workforce data by regional economic development organization GNO, Inc. says New Orleans ranks second nationwide in the percentage of women in technology jobs and seventh nationwide in the percentage of African-Americans in technology jobs.
As Louisiana’s only metropolitan public research institution, an important part of the University of New Orleans’ mission is advancing shared knowledge and supporting the region’s economy. In practical terms, the University serves as a catalyst for both individual growth and commercial progress by ensuring residents have access to the expertise and training that employers need to maximize future profitability. In preparing today’s college students for the jobs of the future, the University of New Orleans isn’t waiting. The University played a key role in one of the biggest economic development stories in Louisiana’s recent history.
DXC Technology employs approximately 130,000 people and boasts 6,000 clients in 70 countries. The company formed in 2017 with the merger of CSC and the enterprise services business of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. DXC provides end-to-end IT services for companies in industries ranging from health care to travel to aerospace and energy. When DXC set out to designate a location for its newest operations center, which will eventually employ 2,000 people, an apprenticeship program pioneered at the University of New Orleans proved to be a key factor in the company’s decision to choose the Big Easy.
In 2012, GE Digital and UNO launched the Software Engineering Apprenticeship Program, known as SWEAP, in which computer science undergraduates from UNO work alongside seasoned software engineers at GE and gain real-world experience in the industry prior to graduation.
"SWEAP serves GE as an extended interviewing process," said Ted Holmberg, industry liaison for UNO’s Department of Computer Science. "GE can integrate UNO students into professional software teams and train them in their technology stacks, using their proven development methodologies."
This proven model for meeting workforce demand in the technology sector proved attractive enough to DXC site selectors that it helped to set New Orleans apart from other American cities.
Terrell Boynton, director and general manager of DXC’s New Orleans Digital Transformation Center, said as a guest on a June 2018 podcast that the technology market is changing so rapidly that even as few as two years spent training an employee on-the-job can generate a loss for the company.
“We need to uniquely craft and train and develop them within the university system rather than post-education, which increases the cost and time for those students to be able to engage on projects,” explains Boynton. “What was really important is that we were able to be closely interlocked with these university programs, able to craft the training and the development in those curriculum programs so that when a student graduates as a senior they’ve already been engaged in DXC apprentice and internship programs, as well as have an understanding of the goals and direction within agile development that we’re asking of them from day one.”
“So that is a key distinguishing factor, I think, across all the cities that we looked at, that New Orleans and Louisiana presented that uniquely enables DXC to succeed here in New Orleans,” Boynton said.
Beyond partnerships with technology giants like GE Digital and DXC, UNO ensures ongoing access to in-demand high-tech know-how through an array of degree programs and certificates designed to accommodate everyone from full-time freshmen headed for an exciting career in a cutting-edge field to professionals who are striving for career change or advancement in the dynamic, global economic landscape.
GNO, Inc. describes the role of digital media as a “diversifying sector” in the local economy, a sector in which regional assets can be leveraged to create new economic opportunities. Among the region’s assets are a digital media and software development tax incentive, the most robust of its kind in the nation, and a public university with highly regarded computer science research and academic programs. For example, the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have designated UNO as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Operations. UNO is one of about 20 designated research centers in the country and the only one in Louisiana.
Computer science majors at UNO have the option of developing a concentration as undergraduates. One concentrations option is cybersecurity, which is the protection of information systems against unauthorized access, tampering or cyber attacks. The UNO cybersecurity program was one of the first in the country to offer courses in digital forensics and reverse engineering. Another focus option for undergraduates is bioinformatics, which uses computing and large amounts of computer data to advance medical research. This particular type of data scientist works with genomic or other biological information to find patterns, build databases, track the evolution of a virus or otherwise use data analysis to solve health problems.
A third computer science concentration is game development, which is both technical and creative in nature. Nationally and locally, game development is a highly competitive and diverse market supporting multiple levels of employment opportunities from small indie studios to large international companies. Careers in game development cater to both versatile programmers and programmers who wish to specialize in a particular domain.
A game development class offers students a simulation of working in a professional game development studio. Each student pitches an idea for a video game and the class votes on which concept to pursue. Once a project is selected, each student takes on the role of a studio employee, such as producer, lead developer, designer or quality assurance tester. Functioning as a real development team, the students then develop the game from concept to prototype to final deliverable. Final exams involve hands-on participation by local industry professionals, who visit the class to play the final version of the game and offer students feedback about their work product and pursuing a career in game development. Students have been “graded” by experts from companies such as Electronic Arts, Nickelodeon, Turbosquid and inXile.
The robust computer science curriculum at UNO extends beyond computer language and programming into the world of big data and the systems that can turn huge amounts of data into useful information.
What exactly is big data? Shaikh Arifuzzaman joined the University of New Orleans faculty in 2016 as an assistant professor of computer science. Among the courses he teaches is “Big Data Analytics and Systems.” According to Arifuzzaman, big data is a buzzword that describes overlapping fields in computer science. He describes his research focus as the intersection of data mining, algorithm design and high performance computing.
To explain, Arifuzzaman uses as an example measurements of atmospheric conditions and what can be learned from analyzing that data. Weather can be measured by collecting some data points over a short period of time and analyzing them. But an accurate measure of climate would require a collection of those data points in multiple locations over decades or even centuries. The amount of data necessary to glean useful information about climate far exceeds the amount of data that could provide useful information about weather.
Arifuzzaman is in the process of collaborating with UNO colleagues from different departments on projects that will apply his expertise in data and computing to research in other disciplines. For example, he is working on a project with faculty from the Department of Planning and Urban Studies to examine connectivity around the city of New Orleans, and he is working with faculty from the Department of Psychology to find correlations among attributes in brain images and whether those attributes might indicate a disorder is present.
The almost infinite possibilities for using computer science to advance knowledge across disciplines is one of the factors that makes the field so exciting and so fast-moving. At the same time these possible applications are becoming apparent, another challenge looms on the horizon. Deep into the information age, one of the challenges in the data analytics field is sheer volume. How will data scientists gather, analyze and interpret the ever-increasing numbers of data points generated?
According to Domo, a Utah-based software company, in 2018 each of these activities took place every 60 seconds:
- 49,380 photos were posted on Instagram
- 4,333,560 videos were watched on YouTube
- 1,111 packages were shipped by Amazon
- 3,877,140 searches were conducted on Google
Every click, share and like related to those activities becomes a data point. And in future years, as more apps become mainstream, it seems likely that the exponential rise in the vast number of data points will continue on the same trajectory. As computer scientists seek to continue extracting helpful information from ever-increasing mounds of data, one of their challenges will be developing capacity to process large datasets stored on more than one computer. Development of technology that can record, store, process and report ever-increasing amounts of information with relative speed is what Arifuzzaman calls high-performance or scalable computing. He leads a big data and scalable computing research group that is focused at the intersection of large-scale data analytics, high-performance computing and applied machine learning. The group is developing tools for large-scale data analysis, data visualization and large-scale scientific computation with applications in biological sciences, social sciences, transportation and other data-rich disciplines.
In the era of technology giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, big data means big power. Mining data to extract useful information harnesses that power for a specific purpose. One relatable example of data mining is advertising on social media platforms. When technology users are connected socially, there are almost always shared attributes among them. Merchants can micro-target advertising within social media platforms using these shared attributes and connections to identify consumers likely to be receptive to their sales pitches.
Identifying these shared attributes and connections is just the tip of the data mining iceberg. A UNO undergraduate student majoring in computer science wrote a program that allowed him to use Twitter to measure differing attitudes among students at Louisiana’s public universities about how the administration at their own school responded to warnings about the approach of Hurricane Harvey.
Sanjiv Pradhanang was a junior in the fall of 2017 when he was thinking about participating in UNO’s annual research and creativity showcase, InnovateUNO. Hurricane Harvey had just hit the Gulf Coast and ravaged Texas. In the days preceding landfall, forecasters reported a high degree of uncertainty about where exactly the storm might hit. New Orleans braced itself for heavy rains and perhaps 5-10 inches of flooding. College students across Louisiana were faced with uncertainty about class cancellations and campus closures very early in a new semester. Pradhanang noticed that students, as they often do, were using social media as an outlet to express a variety of emotions about the speed with which university officials were making decisions about whether Harvey warranted a campus closure. Looking at his Twitter feed, Pradhanang knew that he had enough to conduct some research and present his findings at InnovateUNO.
Pradhanang wrote a simple program designed to collect from Twitter any posts mentioning the official Twitter account of a Louisiana university appearing on the site between August 27 and 31. From this collection, Pradhanang grouped tweets into three categories: those specifically referencing the approaching hurricane (1,160), those referencing a school experience but not the hurricane explicitly (2048) and those that did neither (448). Next, he assigned positive and negative values depending on the nature of the sentiment expressed in each tweet. An analysis of this data indicated a correlation between positive sentiments about the school expressed on Twitter and early announcements by higher education officials about whether the campus would close. When he presented his findings at InnovateUNO, Pradhanang concluded that earlier decisions to close campuses likely resulted in students feeling safer sooner. Data mining discovers patterns in raw data that first become insights into past experiences and from there can be treated as useful information to guide decision- or policy-making in the future.
Pradhanang gets paid to conduct undergraduate research thanks to a grant to UNO from the the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust. The College of Sciences Undergraduate Research Program (COSURP) allows students to earn $10 per hour and work up to 10 hours per week in the fall and spring semesters on research projects in areas such as biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, earth and environmental sciences, physics or psychology. Arifuzzaman supervises Pradhanang's COSURP research and serves as his mentor.
Pradhanang’s project illustrates a simple example of data mining in which he identified a universe (Twitter) and data points (tweets) within it sharing a common attribute (the mention of a Louisiana university). He collected thousands of these data points and manually sorted them into categories to which he assigned positive or negative values. He analyzed his data to produce useful insights about how Louisiana college students reacted to uncertainty about school during the threat of Hurricane Harvey. But what if he wanted to conduct this research on a much larger scale? It wouldn’t be feasible to manually sort through millions of data points. For data collection and analysis on a large scale, scientists can develop programs instructing the computer to sort raw data. These instructions, however, must provide the computer with a very specific technique for identifying the correct information within the vast fields of data. In other words, they must communicate instructions to the computer that relay the question at hand in language the computer understands. These specific instructions are algorithms, and algorithmic design is a specialty for some computer scientists. Algorithmic design is highly analytical in nature like math and statistics.
Software engineering is the science of implementing the algorithmic design through code. UNO offers an undergraduate degree from the College of Engineering with concentration options in electrical engineering—robotics, power systems, communications and audio technologies—or computer engineering.
There are several classes available for non-computer science majors who want to get in on the action. The Graduate School recently started offering a certificate in data analytics, and an online class called “Cybersecurity for All Majors” will debut in the fall semester of 2019. UNO’s division of Professional and Continuing Education (PaCE) offers 2-course online certificates in Agile Application development using Python language, software product management and user experience (UX) design.
Professional and Continuing Education at UNO
The University of New Orleans launched its Professional and Continuing Education division in part to expand technology training and make it available to those who aren’t enrolled as full- or part-time students.
“With the growing number of technology companies in greater New Orleans, it is foreseeable that digital literacy will become increasingly important in Louisiana,” said Tina Chang, associate vice president for Professional and Continuing Education at UNO. “Consequently, UNO Professional and Continuing Education will be offering more workshops, courses, and certificates to help increase digital literacy as well as meet the existing interest in the community.
Courses offered to date include an introduction to digital arts, focused on the fundamentals of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, and a 2-day coding class focused on Python, the programming language used by such companies as Google, YouTube, Netflix, IBM, and Dropbox. The division also administers certificate programs in user experience (UX) design, software product management and digital marketing.
“If you're a working professional with limited time, learning from someone else's mistakes is invaluable,” Chang said. “Learning something new can be an intimidating process; however, having this instructor guidance and camaraderie of learning with others makes it less so.”