Hacking into Big Data Analytics

NUS-ISS' first hackathon has been a novel and effective way to expose Master of Technology (MTech) students to the real world of big data analytics, says Dr Carol Hargreaves, our Enterprise Business Analytics Practice Chief.

Business Analytics lecturer, Dr Carol Anne Hargreaves, recently found herself imparting more than just big data theories when NUS-ISS teamed up with Knowesis to organise its first hackathon event for Master of Technology (MTech) students. Knowesis is a local firm supporting telecommunication service providers in the area of big data analytics.

“Basically, a hackathon is a project where a group of students get together to solve key business problems,” said Dr Hargreaves. “It provides a unique platform where they can learn, in a short space of time, about the challenges and issues that a company experiences. At the same time, it offers students the opportunity to network with industry experts.”

The idea behind a hackathon is closely aligned to NUS practise-based approach to learning. “In this case, we had Knowesis on one hand, who was keen to be more involved in business analytics. On the other, we were keen on industry collaborations that could give our course participants a learning experience involving real business data and challenges,” Dr Hargreaves shared.

The telecommunications industry was chosen as the focal point for the first hackathon, because of its access to large data streams that could be harnessed to help companies make better strategic decisions in their business planning and customer engagement activities.
Judges and participants at the Hackathon

The hackathon was an intensive four-week dive into big telecommunications data that started with 50 MTech students. Knowesis’ Chief Sales Officer, Damian Wade opened the session with a presentation on the telecommunications industry and provided the hackathon participants with different business scenarios where analytics could be applied and used for better decision-making and planning. The students then divided themselves into teams and selected a scenario for their projects.
Judges and participants at the Hackathon

Each team had a mentor whom they could reach through Google Hangout, and on the third week, they presented their drafted solutions for feedback. Only nine teams qualified for the final round, and during the fourth week, the teams presented their analytics to a panel of judges consisting of experts from the telecommunications industry. To incentivise the effort, the top three teams were awarded cash prizes for their work.

“The students were highly energised and excited about this opportunity,” observed Dr Hargreaves. “They enjoyed competing with each other while researching and designing their solutions. They built stronger connections with their teammates and, more importantly, the learning experience was fast-paced, fun, and practical.”

David Low and Zane Lim from the winning team, 2Innovation, presented two proposals to the judging panel. Their first solution utilised an algorithm to mine for sequential patterns in mobile phone activities such as the topping-up of phone cards, voice calls and SMSes that could offer valuable insights into customers’ pre- and post-purchase behaviours. Their second solution leveraged the social networks constructed from voice calls and SMS usage data to help telecommunication services providers optimise their marketing resources, with the objective of making them more effective.

Knowesis, who also used this opportunity to scout good data analytic talent for the future, has plans to adopt the winning ideas. “They’re inviting some of our students for job interviews,” Dr Hargreaves revealed.

According to David and Zane, the hackathon had been a marvellous experience as they were able to gain a better understanding on applying the techniques learnt to solving practical and real-life problems. They also received valuable feedback and guidance from Knowesis and NUS-ISS mentors on how to develop solutions that provide true business value.

Dr Hargreaves hinted that plans for a second hackathon in 2015 were already underway. “This time, we’ll be looking to partner with the Healthcare industry.”

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