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Students finding opportunities in growing field of data analytics

| Judy Berthiaume

UW-Eau Claire attracts many successful hockey players, but it is several Blugolds’ off-the-ice talents that may help the Minnesota Wild reach its goals.

A team of UW-Eau Claire students recently spent a weekend using their data analytics skills to identify strategies that the Minnesota-based professional hockey organization could use to help meet its goal of retaining more season ticket holders.

The Blugolds’ problem solving on behalf of the Wild earned them second-place honors in the Midwest Undergraduate Data Analytics Competition, an event that challenges students to use their abilities to solve an analytics problem posed by a sponsor, which this year was the Minnesota Wild.

“We work together in teams of four for 24 hours to help solve real-world problems presented by companies with their data,” says Nicolas Larson, an applied mathematics major from Milwaukee. “We analyze a large data set, develop a predictive model, and then we have to find various ways to display and communicate our results in a simplified manner.”

Blugold team members included Larson, a senior who will graduate in May; Lance Tanel, an actuarial science major from Brookfield; Seth Gilbert, a computer science major from Rice Lake; and Hunter Hartke, a mathematics major from Buffalo, Minnesota.

The competition, hosted this year by Winona State University, brings together more than 125 undergraduates from colleges and universities throughout the Midwest. About 40 working professionals assist with judging the 35 teams’ proposed solutions.

“We began by cleaning the data set so that we could develop a model, which could accurately predict season ticket holder retention and identify what could be done to improve retention rates,” Tanel says. “Some significant metrics included things like the number of years as a season ticket holder, number of partners on each account and the type of season ticket plan.”

The students impressed judges with their analysis, with the Blugold team steadily moving up the rankings throughout the weekend and finishing in the top two.

“It was an exhilarating feeling,” Larson says. “After working so hard for 24 hours, the success was very sweet. While we go to MUDAC because it’s fun and a great learning experience, the second-place finish was an added bonus.”

Data analytics is a growing field of study that can lead to a variety of career paths and opportunities within a range of businesses and organizations, including professional sports such as hockey.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the analytics field to grow 23 percent from 2016-2026, much faster than the average for all occupations, because of increased use of data and market research across all industries.

“I became interested in data analytics when I began to recognize the vast potential behind it,” Tanel says. “There is so much content being generated every day by our daily transactions, internet searches, downloads, uploads, social media usage, and so much more.

“Everything we do online nowadays is documented by some business somewhere. This data can be used in so many different ways to predict so many different things, from diseases like cancer to the likelihood of getting in an automobile accident or the probability that someone will be a successful employee.”

Finding the story within the data and then figuring out how to best share that story is challenging and rewarding, Larson says.

“I love looking into the data and finding hidden insights, and then painting those insights into a story that can be presented to other people,” Larson says.

Tanel agrees, noting the variety and the challenges of working with data is what makes it interesting.

“When you get access to a data set, the potential is endless,” Tanel says. “You can find solutions to problems you didn’t even know existed. It's finding these problems and tackling them head on that is the most rewarding part of what we do. The most challenging aspect of data analytics is working around the countless roadblocks that we encounter with each data set.”

Larson became interested in data analytics when he began working on research last year with Dr. Abra Brisbin, associate professor of mathematics.

“I quickly became fascinated with it to the point where I switched majors last spring and never looked back,” Larson says.

Tanel became interested in the data analytics field after Larson invited him to join last year’s MUDAC event. UW-Eau Claire’s team needed a fourth member so Tanel agreed to sit in.

“At the time, I had never really thought too much about data analytics,” Tanel says. “We placed 24th in MUDAC overall and listened to the winning teams talk about their ‘random forest’ models and strategies for cleaning data, all of which I had never heard of before.”

He was intrigued and soon was hooked on analytics.

Larson and Tanel now are working to help other Blugolds better understand the field and the opportunities within it.

With encouragement from Brisbin, the duo created a new student organization, Data Analytics Association, which is open to any Blugold with an interest in data analytics.

“Dr. Brisbin encouraged us to start a data science club where students could learn more about the field and hopefully gain some experience in it,” Tanel says. “As an association, we want to connect students to experiences that will benefit them professionally and personally. We also want to show students that analytics is fun and exciting, and the results are fascinating.”

The organization hosts a variety of events such as software tutorials and guest speakers, including those who can talk about the potential the field offers as well as what students can do to prepare themselves for careers in data science.

Employer visits also give students opportunities to ask questions about real-world situations and to network with potential future employers.

Members of the organization also engage in data science-related projects all designed to help Blugolds prepare to enter a growing field that offers countless opportunities.

“It's difficult to keep up with the rate at which this field is rapidly growing, but we do our best to keep the content of the Data Analytics Association relevant,” says Larson.

Photo caption: Blugolds Nicolas Larson (left) and Lance Tanel started a new student organization that focuses on the growing field of data analytics.