How One University Puts Big Data Into Curriculum

U.K. business school uses Tableau Software's visual analytics tool, now free for students, to help undergraduates find stories hidden in opaque data.

Gary Flood, Contributor

March 11, 2013

3 Min Read

Tableau Software announced last week it will make its data-visualization desktop client available for free to students at accredited K-12 institutions, colleges and universities worldwide.

One goal is to expose students to big data early enough to get them excited about working with information to spot business patterns they might not otherwise. And, an example of what that might mean in practice is provided by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), a higher education institution based in the North-West of the U.K.

Michael Brightman, a UCLan associate (part-time) lecturer, told InformationWeek he'd started using Tableau in a course called Current Issues In Business, in a module taken by third-year students in its Lancashire Business School.

"I'd come across Tableau myself as part of my own research into provincial newspapers and business," he said. "I thought it might be useful for people in the course -- especially the two or three part-time, mature students who might also find it useful in their day jobs."

[ Can elementary school students handle big data? See Big Data Education: When Should It Start? ]

What do students like these and others do with Tableau? The idea, said Brightman, is to spot what he calls stories -- patterns of data -- in either small or large datasets. "With very big datasets in particular, you just can't see at once what things are there that others haven't spotted yet, especially with lots of historical business data companies keep but don't really know what to do with," he said.

"Analysis using tools like this can detect patterns that wouldn't come out otherwise -- which I call 'stories'."

Alas, as yet Brightman's students at the Preston, Lancashire, school haven't cracked intractable puzzles yet, like decipher the Voynich Manuscript, the Phaistos Disk or why anyone green-lit A Good Day To Die Hard. But he did say his students found the tool extremely useful in working through the U.K. government's official population dataset, finding "a lot of far from obvious" correlations that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, he said.

And he can't resist saying that one student is finding it very helpful in his hobby -- analyzing the world's most "puzzling" game: cricket.

Brightman also said it's the visual aspect of this form of business intelligence that makes the biggest difference to students starting to wrestle to get insights out of masses of information. "A lot of business information comes in the form of lots of text and numbers," he said. "It's really only when it is captured in a visual form that you can start working through it in more intuitive ways."

So far, he said, Tableau has proven so useful to his group that two of his part-time, working students have been authorized to buy the product for their regular jobs.

That means they join what the supplier claims to be the 10,000-plus organizations using its software, including the U.K.'s own Barclays Bank, Deloitte, Ferrari, Intel, Johns Hopkins Hospital, SpaceX and Unilever.

The software itself was spun out of an academic environment: In 2003, Stanford University professor Pat Hanrahan and Chris Stolte, a PhD candidate in the University Computer Science department, took on a Department of Defense (DOD) project aimed at increasing people's ability to analyze information.

To meet the requirement, the pair invented a technology called VizQL, a new way to perform data analysis and visualization. Stanford Business School graduate Christian Chabot joined them, and the three formed Tableau Software to market the product.

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