McGill University faculty lecturers Nabil Beitinjaneh and Alejandro Gutierrez Lopez are teaching students to fight fire with data.
As part of the Data Analytics for Business and Data Science and Machine Learning programs at McGill University, located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, students use Alteryx Analytic Process Automation (APA) Platform tools to study the level of fire risk in various sections of the city and propose data-driven remedies. This exercise and others like it — such as predicting which Montreal streets are most likely to develop potholes —reinforce the kinds of versatile problem-solving skills that employers increasingly want.
“Our goal is for students to understand the impact of data on business and the real world, and to discover how they can apply technologies like Alteryx to solve a challenge step by step,” Beitinjaneh says. “They’re pulling fresh insights out of complex information sources and producing solutions that wouldn’t be possible without data analytics.”
Applied Learning With a Local Focus
The two professional development certificate programs attract many working adults who are interested in upskilling and reskilling themselves to change careers or qualify for other roles in their organization. Roughly half of the students have technical backgrounds, while the rest come from business management-oriented backgrounds.
“We help students build practical skills that they can apply on the job and that also can expand their professional horizons. They gain competence in tools and techniques that they never even knew existed before they joined our program.”
—Alejandro Gutierrez Lopez, faculty lecturer, McGill University
Students from both programs start their learning journey in the same foundational course, which introduces the fundamentals of machine learning, data science, geocoding, and other analytical techniques. From there, students branch out to pursue their specific interests before coming back together for a semester-long capstone project that challenges them to apply everything they have learned.
During the capstone, students work in teams to address a local business or civic issue that involves multiple streams of data. Teams rely extensively on the Alteryx software environment to combine their data sources, clean the results, generate reports and provide a foundation for making intelligent decisions based on where the data is pointing.
In the case of Montreal’s notorious pothole problem, they crunch the average repair costs, numbers of complaint calls and emails coming into the city’s maintenance department, the time involved in filling each hole and other variables. For the assessment of local fire risk, students assemble data on property values, fire department response times, household income levels, population density and the weather.
The course instructors typically invite City of Montreal representatives to attend the student teams’ final capstone presentations. “We want to give our students a challenge that feels tangible, something that touches their lives,” Beitinjaneh says of the local focus. “What better way than by getting to know your own city?”
Intuitive Tools Support End-to-End Problem Solving
Lopez and Beitinjaneh’s quest for a data analytics software platform that was powerful, yet also intuitive to use, led them to Alteryx in 2018. The Alteryx for Good program, which provides free or discounted software licenses to nonprofit organizations, is integral to their program’s success, says Lopez.
“We get a lot of value from the Alteryx platform,” he says. “It allows our students to take a step-by-step approach and create that logic of solving a problem from beginning to end.
“You see your results immediately, and it’s easier to discuss what you’re seeing,” he adds. “The ability to plug and play is great.”
Faisal Alazem, an advanced analyst at Bell Canada who recently completed the professional development certificate program at McGill, says his experiences using Alteryx have made an immediate and profound impact on his career.
“These tools help you look at data in really different ways. You can get answers quickly in Alteryx, but you can also take a deeper dive to find the stories that are often hidden in your data.”
—Faisal Alazem, Data Analytics program graduate
Even though he came into the Data Analytics program with a great deal of coding experience already, Alazem says he was impressed by the efficiency offered by Alteryx.
“It’s at least twice as fast for me to connect data sources, clean the data and extract insights using Alteryx compared with having to code the same steps myself,” he says.
“That’s a breakthrough — because I’m saving time and delivering better work as well.”
Opportunities to Expand Business Value Locally
Beitinjaneh and Lopez see potential to expand the McGill program as more students experience the advantages of using data analytics software, which in turn will help build greater interest within local organizations.
“Alteryx offers great support through its online forums and user community. They’ve done a lot to help us get students up to speed quickly.”
—Nabil Beitinjaneh, Faculty Lecturer, McGill University
The school’s future plans include creating a new three-day workshop for businesses interested in learning more about how tools like Alteryx can help with data exploration.
“We love this technology and want to keep furthering our relationship with Alteryx,” Beitinjaneh says — mainly because of how the platform supports their instructional goals.
“By the end of our programs, students are able to think in a more structured, strategic and data-driven way,” he says. “They learn to see data as an invaluable resource for their organizations.”
Nonprofits: Interested in learning more about the Alteryx For Good program? Apply here.
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