Meeting the demand for analytics expertise in Ireland

University College Dublin’s Business Analytics MSc provides Irish organisations with skilled analytics graduates

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that big data analytics is not just a subject for technology enthusiasts and IT departments, but for businesspeople and leaders across almost every industry. As Ireland emerges from a difficult economic period, the potential of big data analytics to improve business disciplines, such as marketing, accounting and strategic decision making, means many organisations are exploring how they can save costs and time through the wider use of analytics across their operations. A recent report, commissioned by SAS Ireland and conducted by The Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), identified €27 billion of business innovation, creation and efficiency benefits for the Irish economy by 2017, as a result of using big data analytics.

As more and more businesses seek to reap the benefits of big data, demand is increasing for highly skilled, data-savvy workers. Cebr expects a total of 61,000 new jobs to be created in Ireland between 2012 and 2017, as a result of new 'big data' impacts such as business creation, efficiency and innovation.

We’re finding that demand for students exceeds supply – many of our students have multiple job offers, some have job offers almost a year in advance. Our students go on to work for a wide range of employers: not only consulting organisations and specialist analytics companies, but also in financial services, pharmaceuticals, and operations research for big brands.

Dr Seán McGarraghy
Director, UCD Centre for Business Analytics

A pioneering business analytics programme

In 2007, University College Dublin’s (UCD) Smurfit School of Business created one of the first Business Analytics MSc courses in the world, in order to equip its students with these highly valued skills. The MSc has proved extremely popular, not only amongst prospective students but also with employers, as Dr Seán McGarraghy, Director, UCD Centre for Business Analytics, explains: “We’re finding that demand for students exceeds supply – many of our students have multiple job offers, some have job offers almost a year in advance. Our students go on to work for a wide range of employers: not only consulting organisations and specialist analytics companies, but also in financial services, pharmaceuticals, and operations research for big brands.”

The programme is evenly split between full-time and part-time students. Many of those studying part-time are already working in industry, and they are looking either to enhance their skills, or to reskill entirely: for example, a number of the students are civil engineers who are looking for new employment opportunities as Ireland’s construction sector contracts.

The students complete eight modules over one or two years, dependent on whether they are full- or part-time. The modules include subjects such as business intelligence and decision support; data mining models and tools; and analytical business modelling. UCD also runs a SAS® online course, which introduces the students to SAS® Enterprise Guide® and SAS® Enterprise Miner™, and is followed by a one-day intensive course where students have the opportunity to ask questions of a SAS expert. This course is in addition to the programme’s standard modules, but is so popular that virtually every student signs up for it. “The students are really enthusiastic about the SAS course because they like to have SAS skills on their CV – they know it is attractive to employers, and some will need to use SAS skills on a day-to-day basis once they are in the workplace,” explains McGarraghy. “I’m keen to integrate SAS more thoroughly into the MSc course, and we plan to deepen the relationship in the future.” For the past three years, SAS has sponsored UCD’s Patrick Perry Award for the highest-achieving Business Analytics MSc student of the year.

Students also undertake a three-month research project with an external organisation, which counts for one-third of their degree. “We designed the programme to incorporate the technical and business skills our graduates will need in the workplace,” says McGarraghy. “This is reflected in the diversity of projects students undertake, and the range of organisations they work with. The research dissertations have included projects as varied as geographical information systems modelling for public transport networks; opponent modelling in poker; demand forecasting in the pharmaceutical industry; and data mining for energy market pricing.”

Putting theory into practice with Revenue Irish Tax and Customs

Over the past few years, 14 UCD students have undertaken research dissertation projects with Revenue Irish Tax and Customs, which is a member of The Analytics Institute alongside UCD and SAS. Dr Duncan Cleary, Research and Analytics Branch, Revenue Irish Tax and Customs, explains: “We offer eight or ten projects to UCD every year, and students choose what they’d like to do. The students who undertake their project with us are signed up to the Official Secrets Act; all the data they work with is anonymised and they adhere to our strict data protection and governance rules: for example, they can’t take data off our premises or use their own laptops. With these parameters in place, we give students real business issues to work on, often subjects we are really interested in pursuing but don’t have time to look at in depth.”

These issues might have a target of some description that the department is trying to model; others are more exploratory in nature, where the students try to derive value and insights from vast data, without knowing what these might be until the data is examined. “We’re able to offer students real business problems, lots of data, and the tools they’ll need to complete their project. Students use SAS Enterprise Guide and SAS Enterprise Miner on a daily basis whilst they are working with Revenue Irish Tax and Customs,” explains Cleary.

Protecting taxpayers’ interests

To take an example, this year, a pair of UCD students is engaged in liquidation modelling to predict the number of liquidations that Revenue Irish Tax and Customs are likely to see this year, by attaching a probability score to tax entities based on their likelihood to liquidate, as well as a score indicating the estimated number of days until the company goes out of business. The analytics team plans to update the liquidation model it currently has in production, based on the students’ work.

Similarly, previous groups of students have examined the risk case of entities making ‘balloon payments’, that is, a large balancing payment at the end of the tax year that makes them fully compliant. In the past, this was simply a cash flow measure that some companies took, but there’s now potential that businesses will fail or be unable to make this large final payment. “This should enable case workers to proactively and fairly recoup tax revenues, as well as to offer advice to businesses that may be at risk of non-compliance,” explains Cleary. “Ultimately, the work the students do helps us to protect the interests of Irish taxpayers. Over the years, the students have produced a body of work that gives us an excellent foundation to build upon – the team at the department can re-open some of these projects, explore them further, and put new models into production to further improve risk assessment and customer service.”

University College Dublin logo

Challenge

Students work with Revenue Irish Tax and Customs on a number of research dissertations, for example, looking at models for risk assessment and customer channel usage.

Solution

SAS Enterprise Guide

SAS Enterprise Miner

Benefits

Some models have been altered following students’ work, for example, Revenue Irish Tax and Customs’ risk model relating to company liquidations. Students have the opportunity to solve real business problems using vast data and SAS® tools, transforming theory into practice.

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