Geek looking at data


Geek Of The Week: Sean Howard

Jun 28, 2012, 12:51 PM by Michael J. Weiss

"Data Scientist"he’s recently expanded his expertise as team lead for the update of His title may be Research Associate, but Sean Howard prefers to be known as a “Data Scientist.” The 28-year-old urban geographer joined Environics Analytics four years ago to help develop custom products and client solutions using census demographics and
"Data Scientist"

geography. But Demographic Estimates and Projections (DEP), the popular EA dataset that projects nearly 400 demographic characteristics of Canadians up to ten years into the future.

“It’s a big challenge to figure out how many people will be in a given neighbourhood five or ten years from now,” says Sean, who spends nearly eight months on the annual update. “But it’s important work. Retailers need to know how the population is growing in order to decide where to open their next store. If you’re in the public sector, it lets you figure out what kinds of services you’ll have to provide and what kind of tax revenue you can generate off those households. And if you’re a charity, you want to figure out the best neighborhoods to look for donors.”

Developing comprehensive datasets is something of a dream job for Sean. The son of a chief sales officer for a technology company and a nurse, he recalls being an average student except when it came to math. Although he considered majoring in engineering and computer science, he decided both were “too narrow” and chose geography instead. “I liked the fact that geography provided me with an avenue to explore some of the more technical and academic disciplines in addition to social science,” says Sean. He went on to earn an honours bachelor’s degree in geographic information science and geography from Queen’s University, and a master’s degree in geographic information systems from the University of Calgary. After working as a teaching assistant in advanced spatial statistics and modelling, he joined EA’s Custom Analytics team.

“In high school, I’d make dinner twice a week. At the university, I lived with four guys and I’d cook for them.”

Besides crunching data, Sean enjoys running, rock climbing and biking—“when I’m not chained to my desk,” he adds with a nod to a stack of file folders. He’s also one of the top players on EA’s Ultimate Frisbee team. He and his wife, Anne, a web designer, enjoy weekend trips hiking, canoeing and back-country camping in provincial parks like Kilarney and Algonquin. But they’re not in it just for the fresh air. “We’ll carry a Tetra Pak of wine to a campsite,” he says, noting that even everyday wine tastes better around a fire. Carting low-carbon-footprint wine into the Canadian wilds makes sense to him, and he adds “I’ve never had one of those plastic bags pop on me.”

At their Lawrence Park apartment—the couple plan to move to Forest Hill, a classic Cosmopolitan Elite neighbourhood, in July—Sean has assumed the duty of household cook. “Anne would just as soon have a bowl of cereal for dinner so I cook most of our dinners,” he explains, though he’s not complaining. “My mom’s a good cook, so I grew up in the kitchen. In high school, I’d make dinner twice a week. At the university, I lived with four guys and I’d cook for them.” His favourite meal to prepare? Marinated pork tenderloin and roasted potatoes.

In addition to data, the outdoors and cooking, Sean is passionate about his moustache—or least the one he sprouts every November as part of the Movember charitable campaign to raise awareness and funds for prostate cancer research. “My grandfather had it but it’s now in remission,” he explains. “It’s a fun way to raise money for research. My hope is that by the time I’m 40, they’ll have a way to examine you without being intrusive.” As someone whose job involves predicting the future, Sean is optimistic that a solution will be found—probably by his fellow “data scientists” in the medical field.

–Michael J. Weiss


The Vice President of Marketing, Michael J. Weiss is responsible for increasing the awareness of Environics Analytics through media and marketing initiatives.