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Winning through sophisticated data analytics

New UCD business analytics degree feeds into industries crying out for talented graduates

What do the World Cup winning German football team, the hugely successful Irish international boxing team, US government measures to deal with epidemics, and the Abbey Theatre all have in common? Their success is underpinned by the use of sophisticated data analytics.

They use data analytics to find the patterns of play and tactics which will help them win on the field or in the ring, make sure there are drugs in the right places to treat people with serious diseases, and decide how best to alert patrons to new plays.

For businesses this means using the ever-increasing amount of data available to them to improve insights and drive better, more focused decisions.

“Data can be used to examine performance in key areas of a company, such as sales and marketing, operations, customer services and security, highlighting what’s most and least effective, and driving change based on evidence, rather than gut instinct,” says Prof Michael O’Neill, Icon chair of business analytics at the UCD Centre for Business Analytics.


“Big data and data science are just the latest buzz words for what is really analytics or what we more traditionally called statistics, operations research and management science.

“They have brought into sharp focus the need in industry for graduates who are technically competent in computing, IT, maths and stats and who can also blend this deep expertise with business know how, management and most importantly the ability to make smart, informed business decisions through business analytics.”

This need was underlined by a Forfás report from the Expert Group of Future Skills Needs published last April which forecast that 21,000 potential job vacancies could arise in the area of business analytics and big data in the period up to 2020, with about 8,000 openings in supporting technology roles.

“This report echoed the anecdotal evidence from industry which is crying out for analytics graduates with the ability to think across disciplines, and put their technical knowledge into practice for smart, informed business decision making,” O’Neill says.

The UCD Centre for Business Analytics has been addressing this emerging skills gap through the delivery of a number of related masters programmes including the MSc in business analytics which has developed a reputation for excellence, with leading international analytics companies consistently recruiting graduates. Students on this programme gain both the technical know-how and practical business experience thanks to the deep engagement of industry with the programme.

“If businesses are competing on a challenging race track, then modern machine intelligence methods are a finely-tuned sports car,” says Dr James McDermott, director of the MSc in business analytics programme. “Business analytics is where the rubber meets the road. The graduates of the UCD MSc in business analytics know how to drive, how to read the map, and how to look under the hood.”

Another step has now been taken in creating the required pool of business analytics talent with the establishment of the BSc in business analytics degree.

It starts next September (CAO applicants select course DN670 BSA) and offers graduates an exciting opportunity for employment. The degree will appeal to students who are analytical in nature and interested in computing or mathematics. Those who enjoy work where top-to-bottom understanding is needed; objectivity is valued; and it’s possible to prove that a particular hypothesis or approach is the best will enjoy this course.

“Students of business analytics are typically interested in mathematics, applied maths, statistics and probability, computing, science, engineering, technical drawing and problem-solving,” says O’Neill.

According to management information systems subject area head Dr Peter Keenan, business is very much at the centre of the new degree programme.

“Data-powered analytics driven by the needs of the business, as distinct from data-driven analytics that it is all about the technology and not the business.

“The new BSc in business analytics is grouped with the longer established BSc in economics and finance as quantitative business on the CAO.

“These programmes should appeal to school students with an interest in mathematics and technology who might not be aware of the wide range of business applications in which they could use their quantitative skills.”

The new degree programme has in part been made possible through a strategic partnership between UCD and clinical research organisation Icon. The partnership has enabled the appointment of Prof O’Neill as the Icon chair of business analytics as well as the recruitment of two additional lecturers in business analytics.

"Delivering a programme like this takes resources and at a time of great financial stress on the university sector . . . we are delighted that companies such as Icon are demonstrating leadership by partnering with UCD to create new faculty positions which allow us to develop programmes both in research and education to start to address the skills shortage which exists in Ireland and on the global stage."

This shortage is being created by the growing complexity of the world in which businesses have to operate.

“We live in a complex changing and interconnected world, for which we have ever-increasing volumes of data, which is arriving at ever increasing speeds,” says O’Neill.

“To be effective in making smart, informed decisions in these demanding environments requires a combination of cutting edge algorithms underpinned by the latest advances in computational science and statistics, and a deep understanding of the business and the impacts that decisions can have into the future.”

These algorithms are not just mathematically based. “It turns out that natural processes like biological evolution have resulted in living systems which are highly effective at adapting to similar changing conditions by having smart strategies and the ability to make smart decisions in the most critical of times,” he says.

“In the future business analytics software systems will have the equivalent of human brains and immune systems, which will enable businesses to identify scenarios which can have significant impact on their business, and ultimately to be able to suggest the smart decisions to make, and in some cases . . . make the decisions themselves.

“This is not science fiction . . . such systems exist today. For example, in the world of finance increasingly larger volumes of trades are being made using algorithmic trading where, more often than not, decisions about how to trade are being automated to exploit market reactions in the order of microseconds.

“The human brain is not capable of absorbing all of the necessary factors and the market signals to make decisions on such time scales, hence the need in this scenario of automated decision making.”

This glimpse into the future of the next generation of business systems highlights the need for the new breed of graduate with the interdisciplinary skills drawn from computing, maths, statistics and business management and decision making that will be produced by the new BSc in business analytics.

“Our mission is to provide the educational platform that will produce this next generation of graduate, and to push the boundaries of research in this globally significant area thereby helping Irish businesses become more competitive and generating future economic growth.” For information on the BSc in business analytics go to http://iti.ms/1vzPpgU