Hack-a-thons Show Off Haslam Master of Science in Business Analytics Students’ Skills

September 19, 2018

Each semester, when professionals from across the nation gather in Knoxville for the Business Analytics Forum, the Haslam College of Business’ Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) students receive a challenge and a deadline. Their mission: to compete in a hack-a-thon using real data and a real business problem that they must resolve in mere hours.

“We challenge students to work with large data sets to improve business outcomes throughout the program, but the hack-a-thons have the shortest timeline,” says Robert Mee, director of the MSBA program. “They’re a great opportunity for students to get experience with the kind of deadlines they’ll have in the workplace.”

For each hack-a-thon, one of the forum presenters partners with a faculty member to create the competition’s parameters, often sponsoring a prize for the winners. Students divide into teams of three to four, while companies in attendance at the forum watch them work, listen in on their deliberations and note students to follow up with for an interview or to discuss an idea with in more detail. Each student team then presents its findings to the entire forum for discussion and assessment.

“This is one of our company partners’ favorite parts of the bi-annual meetings,” says Julie Ferrara, director of the Business Analytics Forum. “They love seeing our students in action and often say they are inspired by the ideas students present.”

During a recent forum focusing on data visualization, students were asked to predict a census return rate. Since census workers must be deployed to interview households that do not return their form by mail, a model for predicting the mail-return rate by area based on demographics is very helpful for resource planning.  Students received a 2010 census dataset and were challenged to develop a model that would consider the changing demographics from 2010 to 2020.

Fifth Tribe rated the hack-a-thon it sponsored on using social media to combat terrorism as one of its top 10 moments of 2016. For that competition, students were challenged with a broad request to make recommendations on innovative ways to combat ISIS online. Not a typical end-of-the-chapter problem, it required creative methods for analysis and for crafting recommendations. The winning ideas included construction of a chat-bot and rallying the best Twitter trolls against ISIS.

Compete Every Day is an online apparel retailer with the objective of helping individuals perform at the top of their abilities though inspirational garment messaging. As a relatively new company in a niche market it faces challenges forecasting customer repurchases and revenue. It challenged students to help it estimate repurchase customers using several datasets on customers, purchase history and product characteristics.