Number-crunching competition showcases the business of data

Banging on keyboards and hoping something comes out.

That’s Kristin Mara and Corey Smith’s tongue-in-cheek description of their team’s strategy at last year’s Midwest Undergraduate Data Analytics Competition, hosted by Winona State University. Their team won and will be competing again in this year’s competition, which begins today and runs through Sunday.

“I like that it gives you a real-world problem and have to think out of the box to come up with an answer,” Mara said.

Not only was the problem from the real world, it had real significance for Fastenal, which provided the data that teams analyzed. Peter Guidinger, one of Fastenal’s advisers for the competition, said data analysis can save millions of dollars and influence the direction a company takes.

“Data analysis is critical for making good business decisions,” he said. “Companies and businesses have a wealth of data. But getting solutions and insights from that data can be a challenge.”

Fastenal is providing the data again for this year’s competition, which will take place over a 24-hour period. This year’s competition has brought 20 teams from nine schools in the tri-state region, including large state schools like Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Guidinger said the teams will analyze hundreds of thousands of data points on Fastenal’s industrial vending machine program, then provide both a written and oral presentation of their findings and recommendations for change.

“We will be getting some business intelligence out of the competition,” Guidinger said. “We like the fact we can give some of WSU’s brightest students a unique experience.”

Big data is big business as companies, medical organizations and even politicians have to come to rely on the ability to analyze large amounts of data to identify trends and make decisions.

Many online retailers use data analysis to recommend products or tailor advertisements by comparing shopping habits to other customers. Data analysis is also used by medical researchers tackling complex medical problems and political strategists looking to craft custom messages to groups of potential voters.

Mara and Smith’s description of their strategy notwithstanding, data analysis is hard work, said MUDAC director Chris Malone. There are many tools available to the students during the competition, but it takes skill to figure out which ones yield valid results.

“If you have answers people will listen,” Malone said. “Data holds those answers.”

Malone said the competition has grown so much since its first year that it had to turn away teams. The growth has also brought in organizations from around the state that are big players in data analysis.

Malone said those companies include Medtronic, 3M, Mayo Clinic Health System and others, who will all help judge the competition. Malone said it gives students great exposure to the field.

Malone and WSU mathematics and statistics department chair Brant Deppa both said it’s unique for a school like WSU to host a competition like this and that it speaks to both the quality of the program and the students.

“We have a very good program,” Deppa said. “The best in the Midwest.”

“We’ve drawn out a niche for ourselves at the undergraduate level,” Malone added. “In that niche, WSU stands out.”

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