In Big Data competition, Rider students flourish in front of industry pros

Annual weekend-long DataFest competition draws 43 students in attempt to solve challenging problem

Over the course of a full weekend this spring, Rider University students worked in teams to solve a big-data analytics problem provided by a real organization during DataFest, an annual data analysis competition sponsored by the American Statistical Association.

During the 48-hour event, the student teams analyzed a large and complex dataset that was not revealed until the beginning of the competition. After two days of intensive data wrangling, analysis and presentation design, each team presented its findings to a panel of judges on Sunday afternoon.

"This was the best experience I have ever had in my life," said Julius Jefferson, a senior triple-majoring in finance, sport management and business administration.

During the event, 43 undergraduate students working in 10 teams competed against each other, including one team from Mercer County Community College working with a Rider student. The student participants represented 13 different majors: accounting, finance, marketing, business analytics, sport management, information systems, supply chain management, human resource management, business administration, biology, graphic design, health care management, and management and leadership.

Each year, the data and the challenge are different, but the common theme of making sense of Big Data — larger and more complex than the data sets students usually encounter in a classroom — is carried over. Students are assisted by faculty, industry practitioners and student mentors throughout the weekend to complete the project.

This year's winning team consisted of senior information systems major Jannatul Nayeem, junior accounting major Nicole Briones, senior accounting major Angela Cotugno, sophomore accounting major Norma Nieves, and junior global supply chain management major Jaquelyne Sapon-Maldonado.

Each year, DataFest takes place in a one and a half month window in the spring, and different universities hold their event at different times. This year, DataFest is being held in 40 other locations around the world. More than 80 institutions are participating in this year’s DataFest including some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country, such as Columbia University, Duke University, University of Southern California, UCLA, and Amherst College.

Rider, which held its DataFest over the weekend of April 12-14, is proud to be the only official host in New Jersey.

"DataFest promotes not only computational and analytical skills but also collaboration, creativity and communication skills," says Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Lan Nygren.

Each team is only allowed a limited number of slides in their attempt to convince the judges that they have found the best data-supported insights. Students’ creativity is also put to the test as they are given free rein to pick any software and tool to analyze the data however they see fit.

The competition represents a collaboration between academe, students, and industry. "For students, DataFest is a resume-builder," Nygren says. "Students take away a story to tell at future job interviews about how they met the challenges posed at DataFest, how they functioned under pressure and how they would approach similar problems in the workplace."

For industry practitioners involved in DataFest, it is a recruiting opportunity. During DataFest, they get to identify students with the holistic skill set to navigate the “data deluge” — a highly valued skill set by many employers. Industry experts from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Neurored, Cognitive Operations and Sanofi served as mentors or judges for this year’s DataFest.

For faculty, DataFest can be helpful in revealing some of the knowledge gaps that exist in the current curricula and providing the ground for continuous improvement.

“DataFest was a challenging but fun experience, and I learned how to apply skills learned in class to real-world applications in data analytics,” junior global supply chain management major Brett Bealer wrote in the post-event survey.

This year’s DataFest at Rider was sponsored by NetElixir, Google and the American Statistical Association. Rider’s College of Business Administration is the first business school that has ever hosted a DataFest.

DataFest was founded at UCLA in 2011, with 30 student participants to analyze five years of arrest records from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It expanded to Duke University the following year. This year, a record of 42 competitions involving more than 80 schools are being staged across the US, Canada, and Germany.

Besides LAPD, other organizations that have provided data for DataFest in the past include Kiva, eHamony, GridPoint, Edmunds, TicketMaster, Expedia, and Indeed. This year’s data provider cannot be revealed until May 5 when the last DataFest concludes.