A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Sina Kashuk, SVP of Data Science at Foursquare, formerly Co-founder and CEO at Unfolded, Senior Data Scientist at Uber and DataKind
What is your background?
I’m a data scientist and engineer, with a passion for all things geospatial. My interest in geospatial sciences actually began when I was quite young and was definitely an influence from my father, who was a geologist and owned a construction company in Iran, which is where I grew up. I remember going out with my father all the time to watch him survey the land using a theodolite camera. This is when I realized how much I loved the ability to measure the physical world. Everything is geospatial to me. That said, I’m not that great at navigation, my internal GPS is off, but I love the work.
I studied to be a civil engineer for my undergraduate and master degree. For my Masters degree at the University of Tehran, I focused on water resource management and was introduced to open source GIS software in 2003. I also began to work with neural networks to support master studies and saw huge potential. In 2010, I came to the U.S. for my PhD in civil engineering when one of my advisors suggested that I take a course with Rob Fergus and Yann LeCun (early superstars at Facebook) and was inspired to get involved with computer vision. This provided me an opportunity to test applying computer vision techniques to satellite data. For my post doc, I went deeper into machine learning and remote.
My first job was at Datakind, a global nonprofit that harnesses the power of data science and AI in the service of humanity. One project I supported was with The Gates Foundation, who was trying to detect wheat rust in Ethiopia to understand what areas are susceptible. We went deep on Google Earth Engine and AI to solve this problem and actually used the project to compete for AI X-Prize.
Later, I went on to join Uber, where I met Isaac Brodsky, my future co-founder at Unfolded. He was developing H3 and I began playing around with an indexing system. I was tasked with analyzing defective areas for pick up in cities to improve our rider experience and leveraged the Kepler tools, which is how I met my next co-founder.
The four of us started talking, we were all in love with Carto when it originally came out (I’d been using it for my PhD). Then we realized that the technology that we were using at Uber was far better and had real potential on its own. We knew we could build a better solution based on core tools we’d already collectively built. Our first contract was from Google and proved we were on to something. The team spent the next two years building out the backend to create Kepler as a service and then launched the Unfolded Studio.
As fate would have it, Gary Little recently took over at Foursquare as CEO and reached out to learn what we were building. It was clear that there was real synergy on the backend with the Foursquare dataset. We had created a phenomenal visualization tool, but it required great data to realize the full benefits. It made a lot of sense to combine forces and now we’re a part of the Foursquare team.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
The first was coming to the US to continue my education, it was a big shift that changed my life and opened the door to new opportunities. Another was the time that I attended NYU. It was a unique moment when data science was drawing attention and I got to learn from some incredible people.
Yet another key moment was meeting Issac Browsky at Uber and being exposed to H3. This ended up changing how I could apply my skills in the physical world and became the inception of Unfolded. Most recently, the acquisition of Unfolded by Foursquare was another big step and a huge validation for the tech and proved out our use cases.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
A lot of it has to do with luck. But in order to have luck, you must have access to the opportunities and the ability to take risks. Being in the US creates a lot of opportunities for luck. Again, going to NYU and being exposed to data science early was really important. This experience is what led me down the path to join Uber and to meet my incredible co-founders. Lastly, being an independent company helped me see the value of huge datasets to improve analytics and ultimately, decisions. This aligned with the vision at Foursquare, who wanted to move beyond location services. People may not know that the company has evolved into enterprise customers and geospatial analytics. Goal is to build an integrated geospatial platform.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
You can always connect the dots backwards, but it is hard to see the path when it is happening. Education was important, my PhD in stem was super helpful in applying for a career change. You don’t have to go the formal education route, it’s possible to build skills and a portfolio to then join a company, but education did matter for me.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Most: Coding: I’ve been passionate about writing code since I was 7 years old. I would hack video games to have unlimited lives, it was my original love.
Least: Communication: writing has always been a challenge. English is not my native language and I learned it later in life. I’ve been lucky to have support throughout my academics to get over this gap.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Geospatial: We are building the infrastructure now so you don’t need to know about GIS, but it will be easy to get analysis and insights. A major challenge is that we are not educating data scientists to understand geospatial and in 3-5 years it should be democratized with a platform on a unified system that all data scientists can use. If we can unify data under hexagons, anyone with python and SQL skills will be able to leverage geospatial data. This change will allow governments, companies, and individuals to unlock spatial correlation and a deeper understanding of our physical world, moving from how to why!
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
You have to follow your passion. There is no fixed path to success but if you are doing what you love, it will show in the quality of your work. When you bring your passion to work, it’s infectious and others will be motivated to work with you. And if you find your passions start to shift or evolve over time, don’t be scared of it, trust yourself.
I started in the space industry, then focused on machine learning, then on cloud technologies, before finding myself once again in the space industry - I am passionate about all of these technologies, and that is okay!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
For data scientists and analysts: I used to say python is the skill you have to learn, but SQL is a must have. I didn’t know SQL at all, but learned everything while I was at Uber. It’s essential for the acquisition of the data. SQL for grabbing data and Python for analyzing information and applying machine learning.