Dr. Billie Anderson, Associate Professor of Business Data Analytics

Skills with Data Analysis Make for Smarter Decisions and Brighter Futures

This is a great field for the curious.

How does Amazon know what else you might like? What makes Panera offer a pastry and not a latte as a reward, and how often do they need to offer rewards for people to come back? Why does your friend get a special offer from the cell phone company, when you don’t? How does that Meijer app know which products to give you a coupon for? How does a car insurance company know which customers to reward with rate reductions?

All of those decisions are informed by business data analytics. Associate Professor Billie Anderson is accustomed to blank looks when she says the phrase. “It’s bad enough when you say ‘analytics,’” she jokes; “when you say ‘business data’ ahead of that, it becomes even more cryptic.”

But the field is expanding, driven by the volumes of data produced by digital interactions. “It used to be,” Anderson says, “that business decisions were made based on gut. Now businesses have data to base decisions on, data that helps them do a better job of understanding their customers and predicting behavior.”

There’s data to be mined for the meaning it can provide in virtually every industry. “If a person likes healthcare or retail, science or medicine,” Anderson says, “there’s almost certainly an application of this discipline there.” In consumer businesses, like product manufacturing, retail, or foodservice, the function is likely to be part of the marketing department; other businesses, like insurance, financial services, and banking, consider it strategic to the entire organization. In healthcare or pharmaceutical companies, it may be partnered with other kinds of research.

The Business Data Analytics program, established in 2006, is on a growth curve. Anderson brings real-world perspective to the program, having worked for SAS, the largest privately held software company in the world, and consulted with Starbucks, Blue Cross Blue Shield, CVS, and Ann Taylor, among other companies.

Earlier this year, Anderson contributed a book chapter entitled “An Introduction to Healthcare Data and Text Mining in Healthcare: A Focus on Building Alerting Systems for Decision Support” to Healthcare Informatics: Improving Efficiency Through Technology, Analytics and Management.

The book chapter discusses how a data analyst in healthcare can use data- and text-mining applications to sort through and analyze the limitless amount of unstructured data that comes in the form of physicians’ notes, medical imaging, real-­time data from monitoring devices, patient feedback from social media websites, and smartphones. The chapter address how to take all the unstructured data sources and use analytics to help improve outcomes for colon cancer patients.

Anderson is currently finishing a book chapter as a guest author for an upcoming John Wiley publication that will discuss how banks and financial institutions use big data sources like social media data to inform credit applicants’ credit scores. The book chapter is entitled “Emerging Technology for Today’s Credit Analyst.” ­

For Anderson, the path to data analytics was a natural evolution. “I started in mathematics,” she explains, “and got my PhD in statistics. A lot of data analytics is new words for what a statistician does: taking information from data. The data analytics field is probably less theoretical than statisticians’ world.”

Anderson works to make the coursework meaningful. It’s “taught in a case-study format,” she explains. “We use the same data set and data scenario through the entire class. We pretend we’re working for Paralyzed Veterans of America, learning different modeling techniques to predict who is going to be a donor.”

The practical approach has paid off. Recent student internships have been at Cars.com and at Travelers Insurance. The 2016 graduates of the program “have had some amazing placements,” Anderson says. “One of our students was accepted to the Analytics graduate program at North Carolina State University, one of the top graduate analytical programs in the country. Other graduates have taken positions at Premier Health and Corning.”

The future for the program—as well as for the field—is bright. Anderson is investigating a “feeder system” for a financial services company, with the possibility of internships that open doors to careers after graduation; additional certification in the data analytics field is another possibility in development.

“This is a great field for the curious,” Anderson says. Beyond an interest in math or computer science and skills in analytical thinking, “you need to be curious enough to keep asking questions and keep probing.”