Crunching numbers and churning out code using coffee and bagels for fuel—this is how nearly 100 students spent their weekend at the 2018 Synchrony Financial Datathon during the spring semester. Datathons are typically 24-hour or weekend-long team-based efforts to solve a data-related problem, and Synchrony Financial was the sponsor.
The problem statement: “What will be the impact on home improvement spending when the Fed increases interest rates?” While Synchrony provided a limited amount of data, students had to leverage publicly available data sources to refine their models. This was a great exercise in brainstorming what databases may be applicable to the problem at hand, as well as incorporating a variety of data sources into a single model.
Students ranging from freshmen majoring in statistics to graduate students pursuing MBAs registered for the competition in three- and four-person teams. In total, 19 teams registered for the competition’s graduate student section and seven for the undergraduate section. Separating the teams allowed everyone to feel like they had a chance at winning. The competition was scored a variety of metrics: statistical model accuracy, presentation, and creativity. Synchrony’s prizes included Apple Watches and Amazon Fire TV sticks for the winning teams.
Even the students who did not win a prize still benefitted from the competition. Everyone who participated gained experience dealing with imperfect data and designing a practical approach to solve a business problem. This is unique from classroom experiences, which often have one correct way to solve a problem.
Throughout the weekend, Synchrony provided students with opportunities to network with statistics professionals. Department Chair Douglas Simpson opened with a keynote speech on the future of data science. Dan Comenduley, the vice president of partner research at Synchrony Financial, followed with a speech on client trends. The next day, Synchrony data scientists led four workshops, including on machine learning and neural networks. Throughout the entire weekend, Ujjval Patel, the vice president of Synchrony’s Emerging Technology Center, invited students to connect with him to learn about job opportunities with Synchrony. In fact, at least one student received an internship with Synchrony directly because of this competition.
“Competing in the datathon was a great experience learning from people from different fields,” said participant Yiwei Zhang. “Coming from a statistics and psychology background, I’m used to approaching problems from the demographic and statistical perspective. However, hearing candidates from business or engineering presenting their solutions really amazed me by the scope of factors they considered. Students at our university are amazing because they are diverse and special in their own way. This peer pressure is what constantly motivates me to go out of my comfort zone.”