Oakland firm's competition challenges Western Pa. students' analytical skills

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Big data will be a game-changer for the nation's economy, but the number of people with skills to hold jobs in the field isn't keeping up with demand, experts say.

For that reason, Pittsburgh Dataworks, an Oakland-based nonprofit, started Pittsburgh Data Jam, a data analysis competition for high school students that it hopes to expand.

“The demand for what are called data scientists is four times as much as there is a supply of them,” said Saman Haqqi, president of Pittsburgh Dataworks, which was formed to promote and educate the public about big data and data analytics.

Big data has become a buzzterm referring to sets of digital information that are too voluminous for typical database software tools to capture and manage. Businesses are looking for ways to analyze data more efficiently, drive sales and lower costs, according to a report from McKinsey & Co., a New York-based management consulting firm.

Students in the Data Jam competition worked in teams to analyze data and address Pittsburgh issues.

They went on field trips to local companies, including IBM, UPMC and Management Science Associates, to talk with experts in data analysis, Haqqi said.

Nine teams made up of about 50 students from The Ellis School in Shadyside, Bethel Park High School, Sewickley Academy and Shaler Area High School took part in the competition from March 1 to April 17.

Judges selected two winning teams once the students presented their projects on Tuesday in the University of Pittsburgh's University Club in Oakland.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam attended the ceremony.

A six-student team from The Ellis School won first place with its data analysis of the correlation between a lack of public transportation and crime. A Bethel Park team took second, with its analysis of the impact of community investments on neighborhood growth.

The program was particularly significant at Ellis, an all-girls private school, because it is another way to introduce girls to science, technology, engineering and math fields, or STEM, an area in which women are underrepresented, said Lisa Abel-Palmieri, a team facilitator and the director of technology and innovation at Ellis.

“Competency in using big data to solve problems in the communities around them ... it's not only important for their future in college, but their future in their careers and to really help the city in its transition into this renaissance that's happening right now,” said Palmieri, who is head of computer science at Ellis.

Senior Julia Granito, 18, was the leader of the winning Ellis team.

“I think being informed and literate in big data is an important 21st Century skill for anyone,” the Shadyside resident said.

Her team used Tableau, a data processing utility, to assist in its analysis of data from Port Authority of Allegheny County and PGHSNAP, an online database of Pittsburgh neighborhood data from the city's planning department, to find a correlation between more bus traffic and fewer assaults.

“More bus traffic leads to a lower number of assaults, and that finding is supported by research that suggests that when people are able to move fluidly, crime tends to go down,” Granito said.

The Bethel Park team looked at graduation rates, SAT scores, residential property values and other factors in eight areas, including Brookline, Carnegie and Shadyside, to determine the most effective methods cities can use to revitalize communities, said senior Logan Tuite, 18.

“This deserves a deeper look to see where you put money — more SAT prep courses, more parks,” he said.

The Pittsburgh Data Jam has spurred some schools to consider expanding their data analysis curricula or adding programs, officials said.

Bethel Park is considering a program, said Emily Smoller, a teacher and a facilitator for two of the competing Bethel Park teams.

“This project has spurred that conversation for sure,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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