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Elon SAS Analytics Day sheds light on the role of 'big data'

by Owen Covington
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The event sponsored by SAS, the Elon Center for Organizational Analytics and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics brought together national and regional speakers to share their expertise and knowledge.

Dozens gathered Thursday for Elon SAS Analytics Day to learn more about how "big data" in playing an increasingly large role in a broad spectrum of sectors, and is being harnessed to better understand technology, higher education and commerce. 

John Barnshaw with Ad Astra Information Systems talks during Elon SAS Analytics Day

Sponsored by Cary, N.C.-based business analytics software company SAS, the Elon Center for Organizational Analytics, and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, the event brought together industry experts to share their expertise and knowledge.

Among them was John Barnshaw, associate vice president for research and statistics at Ad Astra, a software company that employs data analytics to assist higher education with course scheduling and student retention. Barnshaw walked attendees through a recent day, noting all of the data he produced as a consumer and traveler that organizations and companies can examine to better understand him and his needs.

The collection and interpretation of this data is fueling a "quiet revolution" that could be on par with the Industrial Revolution in the impact it has on changing our lives and culture, Barnshaw said. 

"There is a fundamental shift in the way that human beings and human culture is constituted," Barnshaw said. "I would argue that we are undergoing a quiet revolution that most people aren't talking about. It fundamentally changes the way we do things from a generation ago."

Higher educational institutions now have the ability to better understand students, as well as to better organize course offerings and class schedules to more closely suit the needs of students, faculty and staff, Barnshaw said. Drawing from his own experience teaching an online course, Barnshaw said he was able to identify correlations between when students were watching videos he posted for the course and how many times they watched it with how they would ultimately perform in the class. 

Ad Astra has worked with colleges and universities to better align course offerings and schedules with demand and to identify areas where additional offerings might positively impact student retention and success, Barnshaw said. Additionally, an examination of LinkedIn profiles and job offerings helps point toward skills that businesses are looking for in the marketplace, and how well they are matching up with the skills new graduates are touting as they look for their next jobs. 

Attendees also heard from Brett Wujek, principal data scientist in the artificial intelligence and machine learning research and development division at SAS Institute Inc., who talked about how machine learning and deep learning algorithms and capabilities are transforming the world of artificial intelligence. 

Adam Gill '16, a Business Fellow during his time at Elon, returned to offer a presentation titled "Data Analytics' Impact on Strategy, Product Development and Customer Experience." A senior consultant at EY in the Connected Growth Platform, Gill spoke about how analytics is enabling clients to leverage their own databases and those from third-parties to build and improve their business products and solutions. 

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