The Solutions Generator
How the Cal Poly Business Analytics Agency and the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub powered by Amazon Web Services are using big data, student-built tools and cloud computing to tackle issues like global poverty, satellite security and human trafficking.
By Alex Wilson
The Zoom conversation begins with a list of time zones — California, Washington D.C., Taiwan, Nepal. After some back and forth, it turns out the variance in hours between these locations is a little hard to calculate, even for the math brains on the call, which are formidable. A few people seem to be running late. (It is, after all, the middle of the night in Asia.)
The purpose of the meeting is a progress update between Cal Poly students in the Orfalea College of Business Masters of Business Analytics Program (MSBA) and members of the Global Macroeconomics and Debt Unit of the World Bank.
In essence it’s a mid-project review between service provider and client. The students on the call have spent the last four weeks using cloud-based tools to build interactive modeling dashboards, which, if all goes well, could help the World Bank process and visualize data.
In some ways, they’ve been engaged in a highly complex storytelling exercise — crunching numbers to create visuals to provide context with real world economic implications. Now the teams are here to test drive the products.
Antoine Noel, Rebecca Duong and Govin Nagpal lead the conversation. Each has played an instrumental role in developing the dashboards.
Professor Brennan Davis, the director of Cal Poly’s Analytics Graduate Program, and Darren Kraker, a Cal Poly cloud solutions manager, are also present to advise the students. On the World Bank side, senior economist Hasan Dudu has logged in to review the tools, along with his colleagues specializing in CGE modeling and economics.
The World Bank is a huge organization, with more than 180 countries as clients. It often needs to use data to create an engaging narrative to show how or why a country should embark on certain economic or social campaigns, under the overall mission of ending global poverty. This is where the MSBA Cal Poly students come into the equation.
The project is part of a partnership between the Orfalea MSBA Business Analytics Agency, the World Bank, Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) and Amazon Web Services (AWS), which has provided resources and access to Cal Poly as the university continues to expand its cloud computing programs and infrastructure. In this specific case, they’ve all come together to solve a problem: The World Bank experts want the ability to explain and display models to non-economists and international policymakers in an easy-to-consume and efficient manner.
The World Bank is a huge organization, with more than 180 countries as clients. It often needs to use data to create an engaging narrative to show how or why a country should embark on certain economic or social campaigns, under the overall mission of ending global poverty.
The models it creates can help countries identify new ways to grow and stabilize their economies. But like all conversations regarding big data, the crux is in providing an arc and perspective that resonate at the human level, for human audiences, which often have limited time and attention.
“The number of issues in the world are countless,” Dudu says. “So, we have to be efficient. Say you have a minister and they have 10 minutes to meet with you in a year. Then you have to use those 10 minutes to the best of your ability. If you can package your presentations well and really make a compelling case, or present something clearly in those 10 minutes in a convincing way, it increases the chances of having an impact.”
Hence, the World Bank needs flexible and mathematically rigorous data dashboards — easy to read, easy to use, visual and intuitive. Which is where the MSBA Cal Poly students come into the equation.
Business Analytics Graduate Student
Business Analytics Graduate Student
Business Analytics Graduate Student
As the presentation gets rolling, Noel, Duong and Nagpal pull up the tools they’ve built to walk Dudu through the features. Onscreen, line graphs and bar graphs spring to life, showing economic trends and predictions in Pakistan, including past datapoints, future estimates, multiple inputs and variables, all corresponding to mathematical models that the World Bank provided and the students coded into the backend of the systems.
As it turns out, the students have built two possible solutions in anticipation that the World Bank will direct them to continue in a more focused way toward one or the other.
The first is a dashboard using QuickSight, an enterprise scale business intelligence service that connects to data in the cloud and combines information from numerous sources. According to Noel, the student leader on this aspect of the project, it also offers ease of use and scalability and could potentially be deployed for an external-facing user, like a minister or a politician logged into a website from anywhere in the world.
The second option is a custom dashboard — this one coded from scratch using Shiny, a subset of the open source programming language known as R — which builds interactive web applications. It’s also highly scalable, cloud-based, rigorous and interactive, explains Nagpal, with an assist from Duong, who handled much of the coding.
But, because it’s also extremely customizable and requires more backend technical understanding, it might be better for internal teams at the bank — with a deeper appreciation of the nuances of economic modeling — to create tools they can tweak and bend around different types of processing requests.
The options (external versus internal, user friendly versus more maintenance) clearly give the team at the World Bank some things to consider — like who their end user is, the base needs they’re looking to fill, how fast these different tools can read the data, what resources are available at the bank to deploy these different options or support them once they’re in use, etcetera.
The students, who still expect to proceed with only one solution, answer these questions with objective feedback to help the World Bank team make decisions.
“Assuming you sent me the code you have now,” Dudu says as they discuss scalability, “can I input data and read the results of another study in QuickSight, without modifying the code itself?”
“I think the main thing,” says Noel, “is if the data structure is still the same, the data set should just update. As long as the headers are the same, you should be good.”
“And in Shiny. A similar question. If I want to see results in percentage changes, do I have to do it in the code, or is there a way to do it on the platform?”
“I could implement a text input box so you could input a formula that would allow for this,” Duong answers.
“Perfect,” says Dudu.
“We’re trying to explore the art of what’s possible with each solution,” interjects Kraker. “Now that you’ve seen these divergent paths, do you have a clear direction?”
“They each fill different needs for us,” says Dudu. He thinks for a moment. “If it’s possible, I’d love to keep working on both of them.”
The Cal Poly Business Analytics Agency was created specifically to give students this type of real world experience working directly with clients. It was conceived within the MSBA program as a unique and cutting edge service for companies looking to fortify their business strategy with data-driven research and consulting.
The agency delivers innovative, analytics-based solutions and thrives on cross-disciplinary collaboration, so students can diversify their skills and gain practical knowledge in high-demand subjects like data modeling, automation, artificial intelligence and more.
To do this, it employs about 60 MSBA students each year who work on distinct industry projects as part of their program, under the guidance of instructors from areas of information systems, marketing, management, statistics, computer science and other fields of study.
As an extension of this experience, the agency has created a strategic partnership with the Cal Poly DxHub, which is also a deep sandbox of learning-potential for students and a cutting-edge hive of ideas and innovation for the university.
When it was formed in 2017, the DxHub represented one of the earliest collaborations between AWS and an educational institution that focused on innovation and digital transformation.
Speaking in similes, the partnership has allowed the Cal Poly DxHub to learn and use Amazon Web Services’ rich set of cloud computing resources like a comprehensive toolbox, exponentially scaling up its effectiveness. “It’s like, if we need a tool,” explains Kraker, “we can pull from AWS’ vast offerings and methodologies and use multiple tools spanning from A to Z to build a solution in half the time.”
At its core, this allows the DxHub to apply proven innovation methods to the subject matter, plus employ the expertise of the public sector and the technical knowledge of AWS to solve challenging problems in ways not previously contemplated.
The DxHub is also part of the AWS Cloud Innovation Centers (CIC) Program, which creates an opportunity for nonprofits, education institutions, and government agencies to collaborate with other public sector organizations on their most pressing challenges, to test new ideas with Amazon’s innovation process, and access the technology expertise that AWS provides.
Currently, the DxHub receives challenges from organizations all over the globe, selecting only the most interesting, impactful or difficult projects to work on. The situation basically creates petri dishes full of problem solving exercises and build-it-if-you-can experiments, designed to be symbiotic for everyone.
Any nonprofit, education or government organization can apply to work on a “challenge” within a global network of public sector-led innovation centers.
In these scenarios, organizations usually come looking for a solution — for example, the World Bank — and all parties work together to uncover new ways to solve complex problems, often publishing whatever lessons they learn in the process to further drive public sector innovation.
The situation basically creates petri dishes full of problem solving exercises and build-it-if-you-can experiments, designed to be symbiotic for everyone.
Currently, the DxHub receives challenges from organizations all over the globe, selecting only the most interesting, impactful or difficult projects to work on. Some are handled exclusively by the DxHub’s in-house team of professionals, such as Kraker and his colleagues.
Others are selected for “academic tracks,” which means students will be directly involved in conceptualizing, building and presenting the solutions — again, like the World Bank project and the MSBA team from the Business Analytics Agency.
Given wide latitude to be creative, the students are mentored and steered under the expertise of Cal Poly DxHub staff, plus instructors like Davis, alongside many other academics and professionals across the university.
The results have been impressive. The DxHub has worked on projects that include protecting endangered species through data access, identifying marine life through underwater acoustics, securing data communications between satellites, helping attorneys to discover and request digital evidence and aiding law enforcement in combating human trafficking.
“It feels pretty novel to be tackling these types of problems and exposing them to students,” says Kraker. “As a staff member I feel incredibly lucky. I tell people all the time that this is the best job I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine having more exciting projects to work on every day. And the opportunity for students to have an impact on literally the economies of other countries, for example, means they’re taking things way beyond something that’s purely academic. They’re signing up to solve a real need and to deliver on a real solution.”
Meanwhile, the MSBA has also continued to expand its client list through partnerships with private sector entertainment, telecoms and data giants like Netflix, AT&T, Oracle and Informatica, plus sports teams like the New York Jets, to explore business analytics solutions.
“Our program gives students a set of technical skill sets with a business mindset,” says Davis. “They’re getting direct experience with cloud computing, which is a complex environment. We’re graduating professionals who then bring in new ways of analyzing data — the knowledge of how to use unstructured data, how to make decisions, how to bring it together in a relational way on a daily or even second-by-second basis and extract meaning from it.”
When the dust finally settles on the World Bank project about a month later, there’s some interesting buzz floating around campus. The World Bank, still impressed with both of the options the students presented at the meeting, has decided to explore how to potentially implement each of them.
There’s still a lot of ground to cover, and it’s not clear when or even if each project will go live, but it is obvious that all parties — from client to students to the DxHub to the Business Analytics Agency — have found meaning in the collaboration.
“Overall,” says Dudu, “everything I’ve seen is just impressive.”
“At the onset of a project like this, you think to yourself ‘How are these students going to deliver something that is going to impress our clients?’ And every single time the students seem to deliver. They pull a rabbit out of the hat and build something of immense value.”
“I know I feel more confident going into my job in the future,” says Noel, “especially after I’ve worked for months on a real life project and I know what it looks like and what kind of leadership is required and what kind of teamwork and communication, and I can talk about that and apply it to employers because I’ve already worked with professionals.”
“It’s so valuable that our program gives us opportunities like this to actually apply what we learn in class to the real world,” adds Duong.
“The potential for impact was also part of everything,” says Nagpal. “When you consider the client and how, potentially, something like this could help so many people, getting to work on it was a privilege.”
“I’m always amazed with the quality of the product the students produce,” concludes Kraker. “At the onset of a project like this, you think to yourself ‘How are these students going to deliver something that is going to impress the World Bank or the New York Jets or whoever our clients are?’ And every single time the students seem to deliver. They pull a rabbit out of the hat and build something of immense value.”