What Are Datathons and How Do They Help Teach Data Analytics?

People   |   Diane Letulle   |   Jan 10, 2024

Datathons are time-limited analytic competitions in which participants are challenged to solve problems using real-world data sets. They give participants the opportunity to use analytics, manage data, and think creatively about how to generate insights. By working in teams, datathon participants extend their knowledge base by learning from each other and get experience solving in a fast-paced environment. According to Citadel, “If you’re passionate about tackling the most interesting and critical challenges … a datathon is for you.”

Datathons and SparkED

For SparkED, the free data analytics education program from Alteryx, datathons have become an important extension of the online and classroom teaching of data analytics available through the program. When learners participate in Alteryx SparkED datathons, they get to flex their data-handling skills and their knowledge of Alteryx Designer, the platform used in all their competitions.

Learning skills beyond data

Beyond analyzing data, Alteryx SparkED datathon participants get the opportunity to improve their collaboration skills since they are randomly assigned to small teams that must develop solutions together. Creativity is also important in coming up with a solution. Presentation and communication skills are critical, as teams must present their solutions to a group of judges in order to move forward to the final round.

Alteryx SparkED datathons in the U.S. and U.K.

In 2023, SparkED ran datathons in London, Southern California, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Texas, Pepperdine University, and New York City. A number of these data competitions awarded scholarship monies to winning students. In 2023, 520 individuals participated in virtual qualifying events, and 370 participated in person at final-round competitions.

Alteryx SparkED New York City datathon

SparkED hosted its first datathon at the Alteryx office in Manhattan on October 20, 2023. Participants from many regional schools attended, including from the upstate New York school, SUNY Geneseo.

Elizabeth Felski, Assistant Professor of Accounting at SUNY Geneseo, incorporates Alteryx into a Data Analytics in Accounting class for master’s students. Professor Felski encouraged her students to participate in the SparkED NYC datathon because, “They love a competition.” She also viewed the datathon as an incentive for her master’s students to “take it a step farther.” To facilitate participation, she worked with her school’s dean to secure funding for travel expenses for any student who qualified.

Elizabeth Felski, Assistant Professor of Accounting at SUNY Geneseo

SUNY student at datathon

One of Professor Felski’s students, Janine Clancy, decided to participate in the SparkED datathon. Janine did well on the qualifying round and found working with Alteryx to be interesting. She said, “It’s fun when you actually get an outcome you wanted.” A week later, Janine traveled to Manhattan for the datathon. While she was initially nervous, she began to feel at ease after talking with other students and listening to the opening presentations by SparkED leaders and representatives from sponsoring businesses such as The Data School, RSM, and Capitalize.

As for being part of a team with students she didn’t know, Janine says, “I feel like that’s kind of fun too, to work off of other people.” Her four-person team decided to split into teams of two to tackle different parts of the problem. Janine enjoyed collaborating with her partner: “She knew some things better than I did, and it was really nice to bounce ideas off each other.” She continues, “In the end, I felt pretty good about the work we did.” A sense of achievement and growing confidence are important benefits of participating in datathons.

Janine Clancy, Student at SUNY Geneseo, Datathon participant

When Janine’s team was announced as one of the three finalists, they had to immediately solve a new problem in front of all the participants. She liked that it was fast-paced, and she worked hard to focus on the tasks at hand with her team. When Janine discovered her team had won, she thought, “This doesn’t feel real.” Janine won a $3000 scholarship, which she says she will use partly “towards my student loans and the other half I’m going to invest.” Janine’s experience using Alteryx at the datathon has made her hopeful that her future employer in accounting will bring the solution into their organization. After the datathon, she continued to learn the platform and has since acquired an Alteryx Designer Core Certification.

As for the next NYC datathon, Professor Felski says she will encourage many more students to participate: “My goal is to have them all try it.”

To learn about upcoming datathons, follow Alteryx SparkED on LinkedIn.

Tags