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University of Calgary economics students make big data accessible to businesses

Big data doesn’t have to remain a big challenge for Calgary’s business community.

Starting next semester, University of Calgary economics students will be offering up advanced data skills for free to businesses and organizations.

The students have offered to tackle real-world data challenges as part of their economics capstone class.

“Lots of companies have data lying around, and they always think that they should be using this data better,” said Dr. Benjamin Crost, associate professor in the department of economics.

“Part of this is going to be to figure out what can you do with this data—so that you can make better decisions when you analyze this data,” he said.

How the capstone class works with businesses

Advanced fourth-year and master’s level economics students will form small consulting groups as part of their class. As a group, they will work on a specific data-related challenge the organization is facing.

“Part of our goal here is to have a work-integrated learning experience to connect our students who are super excited, are really hungry, and really want to work on real problems,” said Dr. Alex Whalley, associate professor in the department of economics.

Dr. Crost will be teaching the capstone class, taking over from Dr. Whalley who had taught it previously for two semesters.

The goal is to deliver a proof of concept of what can be done for an organization.

“We’re not delivering full-fledged software solutions, so people are not going to walk out of this class with a perfectly functional app,” said Dr. Whalley.

“It’s more of a proof of concept—like could this actually work in terms of helping you make a better decision and help your business or your organization perform better,’ he said.

An example provided by Dr. Whalley was a group of students who were able to provide a machine learning algorithm for a real estate firm to provide predictions based on the firm’s data.

He said that this tool was able to be used right away to make business decisions.

Dipping toes into the world of data science

Big data is a hot buzzword, but it can be hard for businesses to understand what type of data they have, and how they can turn that into a competitive advantage.

“We’re hearing a lot about data science, right now—there’s a lot of datasets out there, and very few companies have the capabilities to really get that much out of their data,” said Dr. Whalley.

Both Dr. Crost and Dr. Whalley believe that the University of Calgary economics students can bring a competitive advantage, and the right price, to organizations looking to get more out of their data.

“It’s a chance to have students do a deep dive with you on a data issue, to help you understand and unpack what’s actually going on, and how it can help your organization perform better,” Dr. Whalley said.

Data scientists have also been incredibly expensive to hire.

The students offering their expertise for free, as part of a university class, allows businesses nervous about spending to try out what data scientists can do for their organization.

Economic students bring competitive advantages

The professors believe that their students bring advantages to organizations that other disciplines may not have.

Dr. Whalley said that while economics students may not have had as much coding experience as others in more tech-heavy disciplines, the focus on real-world data and real-world problem solving gave them an advantage.

“We’ve heard of companies that try to hire grads from certain tech areas, and the grads get really frustrated because the company doesn’t have perfect data,” he said.

“Whereas our students are I think are really good at kind of getting around the challenges.”

All of the students in the capstone class will have taken years of statistics and economics courses, and gained some advanced skills in areas like machine learning, A/B testing, and causal inference.

“It’s very tactical areas of statistics and we do those on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Problem solving in the real world

In previous years, the capstone students have tackled problems for businesses and non-profits, startups to large organizations.

Dr. Crost said that economics students can translate data into real world results.

“Rather than just mindlessly throwing this [data] into a machine learning algorithm, and then making some pretty graphs, they’ll actually try to work with the company or the organization to understand what they need and how this data can inform their decisions.”

Dr. Whalley used the example of Amazon having the most economists of any company in the world.

He said that Amazon has been able to look at what people are interested in, and what they aren’t interested in, and translates this information into optimized prices and business operations.

The kind of data-centric focus that has been a staple of the tech industry is now moving to oil and gas, and real estate.

“If you can optimize your business, you can reduce costs or increase revenues, or if you have a nonprofit you can deliver better services,” he said.

“Data is an opportunity to kind of provide that value.”

Getting in touch with the capstone consultants

Dr. Whalley said that the University of Calgary is trying to reach out to organizations off-campus.

“One thing that’s amazing to me is like we’re not that far from downtown at the university, but sometimes that small amount of distance generates huge barriers and kind of collaborating working together,” he said.

Dr. Crost will be hosting a webinar for businesses and organizations interested in working with his students.

The webinar will take place on Thursday, Oct. 28 from noon to 1 p.m.

Invites can be obtained by emailing Dr. Crost at Benjamin.Crost@ucalgary.ca, or Dr. Whalley at Alexander.Whalley@ucalgary.ca.