How do global hospitality companies like Hilton figure out what international travelers want in their hotels and travel experiences? They look at the data. And they need data scientists like Bryce Peake to make sense of it.
Peake, who earned his doctorate in 2013 from the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) media studies Ph.D. program, manages Hilton’s Innovation Lab, which works to improve the company’s brand and customer hospitality.
If you’re wondering how a Ph.D. in media studies prepared Peake for a job at a hotel company, look no further than his dissertation. After researching how Mediterranean tourist economies impact noise pollution in the neighborhoods of Gibraltar, Peake knew he had found his niche: translating numerical data generated by machines into word-based insights humans can understand — and vice versa.
At Hilton, Peake’s goal is to improve how the company supports hotel owners and guests by teaching machine-learning models to understand the language customers use to describe their experiences.
Peake says his background in both media studies and data analysis has been invaluable because it gives him two lenses through which to view the hospitality industry. Data literacy, he says, is becoming increasingly essential to not just the travel and tourism industry, but also to journalism, communication and media studies.
We talked with Peake about his job and how his doctoral studies prepared him to be a data scientist.
Why did you pursue a doctoral degree in media studies at the SOJC?
I began my Ph.D. in anthropology. My research as a graduate student combined many different areas — ethnography, feminist theories of technology and society, digital methods and, of course, communication. After I finished my comprehensive exams, I found that I was pulling on media and cultural studies pretty heavily. So I decided to move to the SOJC’s Ph.D. program so that I could combine it with my anthropology Ph.D. work.
Tell us about your dissertation.
My research looked at the intersecting histories of science and media ecosystems in the Mediterranean tourist economies, and my dissertation specifically examined the controversies over noise in Gibraltar. I argued that what tourists often complain about as noise becomes a quotidian din among local Gibraltarians not simply because of short-term versus long-term exposure. What Gibraltarians complain about most are the media sounds that come from tourist economies and visitors’ media practices.
One of the requirements for my interview at Hilton was to do a 15-minute research presentation. I drew on my dissertation work, and I used machine learning and natural language processing to scale up my ethnography, showing that the conflict between tourists and noise in Gibraltar resonates across a global hospitality landscape in post- and current British colonies. It’s a project I’m continuing as we speak.
What classes or instructors helped or encouraged you along your Ph.D. journey?
My advisor Carol Stabile deserves a shout out here. Carol managed to train Ph.D.s theoretically and methodologically — rigorous students who have worked in both academia and the tech industry, including places like Mail Chimp, Microsoft, Intel and now Hilton.
Two other courses were crucial to my current job as a data scientist managing R&D. Janet Wasko’s political economy course was important because some of my work involves rapidly prototyping economic models that respond to both international market and government changes. Kim Sheehan’s New Media and Culture course allowed me a window into what “business” reads as technological and social criticism, and the ways that it can (for better or for worse) inform research and development strategy in the consumer- and business-intelligence space.
What was your favorite part of the program?
I loved the ability to move across multiple domains of knowledge. In my job today, I’m able to ramp up expertise in domains as varied as marketing to revenue analysis to human factors analysis because of my experience pivoting across fields during my Ph.D.
What do you do in your current position?
I am responsible for innovation research and development. The development part of my job involves rapidly prototyping new algorithmic methodologies and analytics platforms in anticipation of future business needs. These prototypes fuel two types of research:
- Internal white papers on emerging technologies and their use in business to drive future revenue, guest experience and operational decisions
- Peer-reviewed scholarship in data and computer science, business management and strategic communication
In addition to your work at Hilton, do you do anything else to help develop future innovation and new technology?
When my work for the day is done at Hilton, I drive up to Washington, D.C., and teach data science at General Assembly. Among its various initiatives, GA leverages its data science course to increase the representation of women, people of color, diversely-abled individuals and LGBTQ+ folks in the field. As an instructor, I have the exciting pleasure of transforming data science by facilitating and nurturing that diversity. It's an ethical imperative, but so is it economic; teams with different backgrounds are better at avoiding various forms of bias cooked into data sources, imagining new programming solutions to old problems, and thinking outside of the box about the social and commercial problems that data science is being called upon to solve.
How has what you learned through the Ph.D. program helped you in your current job?
A Ph.D. is less about being smart and more about being persistently curious in the face of infinitely recurring challenges. In the SOJC’s Ph.D. program, I learned how to ask questions and how to learn and master skills quickly. And I need to do that constantly in my job.
How does data science apply to communication and media?
The future of communication — whether we’re talking about professional practice or critical/cultural exploration — relies on data literacy. That literacy comes not from reading or reproducing buzzwords, but actually building data, cleaning data and analyzing data with computers.
What’s exciting about the SOJC’s undergraduate and graduate programs is that they’ve always chased the cutting edge with a firm foot in the critical and administrative traditions of communication and media studies. With the hegemony of the data economy coming of age, it will be exciting to see how the SOJC adapts.
Becky Hoag is a senior double-majoring in journalism and environmental science (with a marine focus). A budding environmental/scientific journalist, Hoag has worked as an intern at the KQED science desk in San Francisco, producing content for its new program about climate change, “This Moment on Earth.” She has also worked as a science writer for The Daily Emerald and as co-host of the newspaper’s science podcast Spotlight on Science. She’s also a website co-administrator for marine conservation outreach organization Ocean Everblue. You can view her work at beckyhoag.com.