From left, Data Fest Yerevan organizers Arsen Yeghiazaryan, Andranik Khachatryan, Hrant Khachatrian, and Zaven Navoyan

DataFest Yerevan 2021 Conference Converges Machine Learning Experts


By Cristopher Patvakanian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — This past September, DataFest Yerevan hosted its second annual data science conference at the American University of Armenia (AUA), which co-organized the event through the AUA Akian College of Science and Engineering. DataFest Yerevan brings together Armenian and international data scientists, machine learning companies, students and those generally interested in advanced data science topics for a weekend of lectures, presentations, and networking. Unlike other data science conferences, it covered advanced concepts in machine learning, with a strong focus on engineering and applications. The importance of hosting such events is paramount — data science is among the fastest growing industries of the 21st century, and the application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analysis is becoming ever-present in all forms of business.

The team behind the event are four Armenian data science professionals, Arsen Yeghiazaryan, Hrant Khachatrian, Zaven Navoyan and Andranik Khachatryan.

Dr. Khachatrian, who holds a doctorate in Graph Theory from Yerevan State University and is the director of the machine learning research lab YerevaNN, explained the rationale for creating their group and the event: “The existing conferences in Armenia lacked the rigor and technical details of advanced machine learning.” Their collective frustration led to the creation of DataFest Yerevan in 2020.

Dr. Hrant Khachatrian, co-organizer of Data Fest Yerevan 2021

Their first year hosting a conference online was less than ideal, and was a three-day virtual event, while this year it was hosted offline in person at AUA. DataFest Armenia hosted guests from Russia, France, Austria, Iran, and Georgia, bringing together not only local but regional and international experts as well.

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Among the many speakers this year were Stephen Papp, co-founder and managing director at Sophron Engineering, Victoria Muradyan, machine learning scientist at Picsart, and Stepan Sargsyan, Chief Scientist at Krisp. As far as academics, Khachatrian explained that unfortunately, “Armenia does not have many full-time professors teaching machine learning and artificial intelligence.” Thus, the majority of the speakers were from industry. In addition to lectures, the conference gave the opportunity for presenters, students, and professionals to network in person — a notable difference from last year.

In future iterations, Khachatrian hopes to have more workshop-style lectures and tutorials, diving deeper into complicated technical methods and concepts. For the long term, DataFest Yerevan hopes to create an event which will have broader regional interests and keep its focus on advanced topics. The biggest takeaway, in Khachatrian’s words, was that Armenia not only wants, but “needs more upper-level education and experts to advance the study and industry of data science in the country.”

In his view, the conference highlighted two main gaps of data science in Armenia. The first is a lack of professors and faculty in higher education teaching the latest and most important topics in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The second is the lack of mid-level and senior industry experts to fill in data science roles to match the growing demand for data science leaders and managers in the country.

Attendees of DataFest 2021 in one of the lecture halls of the American University of Armenia

As of today, Armenia has a much greater demand than supply of data science experts, who often receive a limited form of education in training centers and at universities. There is room for a lot more investment in data science research and academia in Armenia, and part of the issue is that the financial incentive for people to stay in research is low, an issue not exclusive to Armenia or data science. Until the country gets that infrastructure, Khachatrian thinks one potential solution to resolve the issue of lack of experts may be to make it easier for international specialists to come and get hired in these roles in Armenia.

Beyond DataFest Yerevan, if someone is interested in learning data science in Armenia, Khachatrian suggested pursuing degree programs at universities, such as the BS in Data Science at AUA, Yerevan State University’s joint Master’s Degree Program in Applied Statistics and Data Science, or Armenian State University of Economics Master’s degree in Applied Statistics and Data Science. There also opportunities to enroll in courses at training centers such as the Armenian Code Academy or sourcemind, which are primarily taught in Armenian but on occasion in English as well.

For those interested in supporting the development of machine learning/artificial intelligence in Armenia, Khachatrian suggested a few concrete ways to do so. The first is to move to Armenia, whether by joining local teams, starting a company there, or opening a branch of an existing company there. Some notable local and international data science companies with teams in Armenia include DISQO, SmartClick, and intelinair, not to mention the growing data science teams at other firms such as Picsart and SoloLearn. Another way to help, for those with the appropriate background, is by becoming a supervisor for students and contributing to the data science community (which is often online) through classes or lectures at events like DataFest Yerevan, which can have a major impact for those seeking more advanced studies not yet available. And finally, not only donating, but investing in Armenian startups, research teams and universities helps support the infrastructure for the industry to develop.

A networking break and opportunity for socialization outside of the AUA lecture halls

In short, there is much work to be done for helping further data science in Armenia, and DataFest Yerevan is among the newest and most successful ways thus far. Much remains to be seen as this growing field is established in Armenia.

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