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Being a data scientist in a small country: challenges and solutions
March 3, 2016 News

Here I am talking about small countries with 10 million or less inhabitants, with good universities and high standard of living: places such as Switzerland, Singapore, Ireland, Belgium, Greece, Netherlands etc.

For data scientists, the challenges are as follows:

  • Government has rather small data to analyze, compared with big countries. So governments data scientists do not work on big data, and might not be exposed to the latest technology.
  • Big companies typically have their headquarters located elsewhere. So corporate data scientists do not have the chance to work on big, worldwide data. Even analyzing all the consumer data of a small country is small data science. This might not be easy to change, as the qualified workforce is found in places such as California and New York.
  • There is sometimes a feeling of being somewhat inferior: when I studied in Belgium, my colleagues told me that we had no chances to successfully compete with Indian, Chinese, American or Russian scientists, as they outnumbered Belgians by a factor 10 at the minimum – and growing faster.
  • The language is sometimes a barrier. In Belgium (South) a university professor must speak French. This considerably limits the pool of applicants, and thus the quality of education. In Switzerland, a recent law has been passed to make it almost impossible to recruit foreigners – hitting research very badly. In Quebec, they even forced me – a French native speaker – to rewrite one of my papers (when presenting at a conference in Montreal) using only French words authorized by the government (‘digital’ was deemed too American, I had to change it to ‘numerique’ – these dinosaurs believe that they can force a language on people, they don’t know that languages are live, evolve with people, and can not be successfully regulated – but that’s another story).


At least, some people start to notice that a number of data science thought leaders are coming from small countries, and feel very encouraged by this. For instance, when ‘small country’ people learn that I also come from a small country, they get all excited and optimistic, and start doing things that they otherwise would not do, such as creating a very popular blog. We should also create an organization such as Small Country Data Science Society. Together we would be bigger.
In some countries (South part of Belgium where I come from), there is a very strong anti-entrepreneur spirit, and any new business is taxed heavily; doing business is considered evil (all entrepreneurs are leaving as soon as they can).

Changing this mentality might be impossible and a lost battle, but you have several options:

  • Leave your country: easier to do after acquiring a certification such as our free, online DSA, or Coursera training
  • Create (incorporate) your company abroad but stay in your country. I’ve been thinking creating companies in US on behalf of residents in other countries, in exchange for a 1% ownership or a fee. It’s a risky business and I won’t probably have the time to do it, but maybe solutions already exist.
  • Work remotely for a company in another country. We have a guy in Eastern Europe working for us, and it’s working very well for both of us.
  • Set up a business that creates passive income, such as a website generating money from Google AdWords – you probably don’t need any licence or authorization to start such a business in your country – it might not even be considered a business. Other examples: a website selling Amazon books (you get a commission from Amazon, on each sale), or selling data or whitepapers, and accepting credit card payments via Paypal.
  • Work on Kaggle competitions – this might give you free access to big data, though revenue is probably unpredictable. But you can do it in combination with my other suggested options.


This article was originally published and can be viewed in full here