How YiDu AI’s founder accidentally started a data science community in Singapore
By Kylee McIntyre30-Apr-2018Views 5620

data science community

Paul (right) addresses a room full of data hopefuls. Photo courtesy of YiDu AI, a data science community in Singapore

Paul Yuan didn't mean to found a data science and machine learning community in Singapore. It just happened.

Last year, the National University of Singapore doctoral candidate was looking for real-life applications for his in-progress degree in optimization, so he gathered a dozen other PhD students in Singapore to share their research on statistics, computer science, and other areas where a maths degree could be of use. His thinking was that, at the very least, the collaboration would result in some projects they could work on together.

“After that, I [posted] a moment on WeChat, and it was very popular, and many of my friends wanted to join," he tells me.

Of course having so many of his friends come together to try and work on a project together would be a situation of too many cooks in the kitchen - Yuan knew nothing would get done. Instead, he produced an alternative: invite PhD holder to give a talk every week, and everyone else who was interested could attend. Any projects that came up during the discussion could be worked on the side.

It just happened.

After a semester's worth of talks - 10 weeks - Yuan and the other attendees decided that the series had been a useful foray into research, but they could do more with industrial applications of their studies. Last August, Yuan took to his network and began to invite people from Singapore's industries to talk about working in practical areas like data science. Combining the theory of study with the business models involved in working in real life companies turned into a hit.

The first of those events, an event with Shopee, attracted an audience of over 200 people to one of NUS' lecture theaters. That's when Yuan realized he might have something bigger on his hands. Thus, Singapore's YiDu AI data science and AI community was born.

Laying down roots

YiDu AI has been operating for less than a year so far and has seen guest speakers from companies including Microsoft, Shopee, visual commerce startup Visenze, and Finbook, which makes tool for crypto-investors. Last November, it expanded from setting up events to becoming a community that helps newbies find out about opportunities in AI, data science, and machine learning. The community is active on WeChat and Meetup, where it boasts over 500 members. The total number of people in the community now is around 1,000.

“[In Singapore], I think data science and AI are the best in Southeast Asia, but compared to the US or even compared with China, the current situation is not that good, right, because of the limited [amount] of talent in AI and data science." says Yuan.

Compared to the US or even compared with China, the current situation in Singapore is not that good.

YiDu AI doesn't have to do much to promote the data science or AI fields, notes Yuan. Those fields are getting enough attention for their possibilities - for better or worse. It's more about giving a starting point to people who have the potential to pick up the skills required by the field.

The information sessions help to show people possibilities, but YiDu AI goes one step ahead when it comes to giving people the hard skills they need: a four-week-long training session on data science fundamentals. The four-week course - three hours per week - currently costs S$269 (early bird special) to S$300. Other local courses include General Assembly's (comprehensive 12 weeks) full time data science course for S$13,500 to S$14,500, Singapore University of Technology and Design's Foundation of Data Science course (S$255 to S$3,900, depending on various grants), and the Skills Future yearlong part time data mining course (S$1215).

Building Singapore

The session is already halfway through, and the course is designed for those who have never had any coding or data experience. In the future, YiDu AI will add on a second six to eight -week intermediate training course that involves more practical knowledge, things that “you cannot learn from even the universities." Writing code and solving problems, in other words, looks different in a classroom than it does in a real-life setting, where data scientists are often building their mechanisms from scratch.

“Our course consists of theoretical and hands-on: three hours a week," he says. The courses also have problems with corresponding data sets so that the future data engineers get hands-on experience and can graduate with a portfolio.

“They should be able to get a job after the intermediate course. That's the target," explains Yuan. “

The best and worst thing about Singapore is the same thing, according to Yuan: its size. The size makes it best to have an offline community that meets in person instead of an online community. The size is also what contributes to the lack of talent in the industry. Luckily, YiDu AI aims to put a dent in where the talent is lacking.

YiDu AI currently hosts weekly events on Sundays. It aims to host an industry-specific topic, like blockchain, once a month, that will draw 200 to 300 attendees. The other weeks, it hosts smaller, tech-heavy meetups on topics like robotics, where attendance generally clocks in around 30 participants.

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Kylee McIntyre
American tech, science, health, and environmental writer. Lover of scifi, fantasy, travel, and coffee. Find her on Twitter @ejkyleem.
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