Using Data Analytics as a Force for Good

Using Data Analytics as a Force for Good

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bryce Quesnel wanted to change things for the better.

When the Carlson Analytics Lab brought in clients to pitch a semester-long project for a team of students to take on, he and three of his Masters in Business Analytics classmates were drawn to one particular project.

Quesnel and his teammates worked alongside Hennepin County officials to try and better predict when evictions may occur and help the county make intervention techniques to prevent them. Homelessness can dramatically alter someone’s life, sometimes for years.

“Everybody in our group picked that project because it was meaningful,” Quesnel says. “None of us wanted to choose it just because it would look good on a resume. We wanted to do this project because, by the time we were done, we would have helped somebody.”

Using county data, the team tested 92 variables, such as income level, number of dependents, and education level, to determine if there was correlation between the combinations of variable and renters being evicted. And by the end of the semester, he and his team were making the impact they had hoped, identifying variables that could contribute to someone’s risk for eviction.

In front of a room full of nearly 100 county leaders and community advocacy members, Quesnel and his teammates presented their findings with a model that predicted who is most likely to be evicted. What followed was a nearly hour-long question-and-answer session that sparked a larger discussion on evictions throughout the county and the damage evictions do to families and communities.

“That Q&A showed that people legitimately cared about what we had done,” he says.” It was nice to see that the work is going to be continued to be looked at and worked through and that people found that work valuable.”

In Hennepin County, there were more than 6,000 eviction filings last year. As one of Quesnel’s teammates put it during their presentation, this project has the possibility to make a “life-saving difference.”

Gaining real-world experience

The Hennepin County assignment is one of several immersive projects organized by the Carlson Analytics Lab. Now in its fifth year, the lab pairs companies with teams of graduate students skilled in data visualization, machine learning, predictive analytics, and other data science methods. Over the course of 14 weeks, students act as analytics consultants and tackle real business problems using data for their client company.

Throughout the semester, students meet with their clients weekly to report on progress and get answers to questions.

The lab works with client organizations of all sizes and from any industry sector. This semester, two of the projects aimed to solve social issues around housing.

Kaia Arthur and her team worked on a similar housing project with the city of St. Paul. The project, funded by the McKnight Foundation, aimed to make data related to rental information more transparent.

She also wanted to be involved in this project because she knew the results she produced would have tangible effects on the community.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the skills for something that was actually impacting a large group of people,” Arthur says.

Launching future careers

Lee Thomas, the associate director of the Carlson Analytics Lab, says the lab’s projects with more of a social aspect have been a valuable addition because it shows students the work they do can really impact lives, especially in the case of the two housing data projects.

The projects emphasize everything students have learned while attending the Carlson School and give them a real-world learning experience. Since students work alongside real clients, problems may arise and the students have to adapt just like they would in the business world.

“They get to take everything they learn in the classroom and put it to work in the real world, which means it’s messy,” Thomas says. “It’s not pre-packaged for them. They have to think critically. They have to be innovative and problem solvers.”

A talking point for jobs

Real-world projects, such as these, helped Arthur land a job as a consultant at Slalom Consulting. Because of the Carlson Analytics Lab, she could cite real analytics experience as a major selling point during job interviews.

“Every single one of those projects is a talking point,” Arthur says. “If you have an interesting project that can really demonstrate everything that you did and learned, it goes a long way in a job interview. So this was valuable because I was able to use it to talk about working with a client, about data modeling, and about visualization.”

Quesnel had the same experience. Working on the Hennepin County project gave him a wealth of knowledge on rentals. After graduating with his MSBA, he landed a job as a data scientist at Zillow, an online real estate database company.

When looking back at his time at the Carlson School, Quesnel says his time at the Carlson Analytics Lab really highlighted the difference his work can make.

“It’s nice to do something you just know is having an impact,” he says. “I feel a lot of times in the workplace you don’t if what you’re doing is going to make a change and with this you definitely know this is going to help some people. I wanted to help people.”