A hallmark of Robinson’s M.S. in Data Science & Analytics (MSDSA) program is Insight Sprints: semester-long assignments students complete in partnership with companies looking to solve a complicated problem. The students receive access to an organization’s proprietary data, clean it up using Python, and draw insights that will help address the issue at hand. But gaining hands-on experience is only part of the point of Insight Sprints. Of equal, if not greater, importance is tackling projects that will positively impact society. MSDSA students’ current collaboration with the Southeast Regional Cooperative (SERC) perfectly encapsulates the greater purpose of Insight Sprints. The SERC supports Feeding America food banks in seven Southeastern states. By breaking apart the raw data in the organization’s donor database, students are uncovering opportunities for the SERC to increase contributions to key communities.
“As a nonprofit engaged in hunger relief work, we are seeking a better understanding of product availability, lowered costs regarding goods and freight, and streamlined data management,” said Chris Flint, executive director of the SERC.
Student teams are responsible for providing weekly deliverables to the client. Their regular observations will snowball into presentations containing critical recommendations at the end of the semester. Thao Dinh, who began the MSDSA program in August, has learned a lot about the seasonality of produce over the past several weeks. Although she can access most anything at the grocery store year-round, donor farms tend to contribute leafy greens in winter and fruit in spring and summer. Those initial remarks might seem obvious, but they allowed Dinh and her peers to offer useful feedback to the SERC.
“By accurately predicting the volume and kind of produce received in different seasons, the client can better plan for storage within its facility,” Dinh said. “We also determined if states tend to provide a single type versus multiple types of produce. For example, it turns out Mississippi’s specialty is sweet potato.”
The final deliverable Dinh and her teammates are preparing for the SERC is particularly exciting. They are connecting the SERC donor database to a map powered by Tableau. As a result, the client will be able to apply filters such as state, type of produce, and weight—and ultimately reuse the dashboard to make strategic decisions.
“The students brought a great perspective divorced from typical preconceptions about our business,” Flint said. “Their insights affirmed some of our understandings, helped tear down some misjudgments, and generated fresh ideas.”