Being a data scientist in a small country: challenges and solutions

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..

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Comment by Misty Manson on June 27, 2016 at 9:52pm
Thank you a whole lot of fullfilling appreciation.
Comment by Dan K. Hansen on April 2, 2016 at 11:37pm
As a dane I can clearly relate to the points mentioned here. Nice to see this been thought about by others too. Thank you for a good article.
Comment by David Dávila on June 1, 2014 at 8:26am
I feel the same, im trying to start some projects of big data in Honduras Central American but this is really hard to make it.
Comment by David on May 29, 2014 at 11:04pm

Hi Vince, 

The points you highlight are really spot on the target.

1) Leaving your country is a quite common practice, there are ppl from (not so) small countries who travelled trough a number of foreign places.

2) Incorporating a company abroad is again common practice, for US the favourite state is Delaware, because of a solid corporate law and some convenient fiscal issues. the re are quite a few firms incorporating and managing such kind of companies. World wide there are quite a few small islands offering even more convenient tax rates e.g. Madeira offers an overall 5% taxation till 2020 to all returns generated outside Portugal (time for incorporation till June this year so hurry up).

3) Working remotely is also a really nice experience, if you have some rich project and you need some support feel free to contact me.
4) it s nice, but it has low margin and most countries are closing in on this kind of return (e.g. google needs to report to local revenue service who is getting the cheque or the bank transfer)

5) is very interesting for ppl living in cheap countries where the single competition is a very high return in comparison with local economy, for young ppl still in accademia, where the costs are covered/accounted for in a different balance but for professional activity the challenges are quite time consuming and the high variance in the outcome renders it a less interesting investment for ppl living in small countries where the cost of living is high in comparison with India and have to generate a possibly constant cash flow (mean variance or kelly criterion suggest very low investment in such high variance activities).

my two cents

Comment by Fateh BEKIOUA on May 25, 2014 at 12:44pm

Yes, that's true. For me i was trying to launch some data mining project related to churn scoring in the telecom company where i used to work for more than 4 years without any success, and when the they finally decided to move into predictive analytics they gave the project to consultants. So being a Data miner in small countries is very hard , being a Data Scientist is almost impossible. That is why i moved from Algeria to the Middle East, it's a little better but still a long way to do.
PS: the model developed by consultants was a complete disaster.

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