Drowning in Data

 

Students in Alice Mello's analytics courses learn to help companies manage a deluge of information.

 

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Growing up in the city of Salvador, in Bahia state on Brazil's northeastern coast, Alice Mello had ample opportunity to contemplate the vastness of the South Atlantic Ocean. Years later, she would recall that immensity as an apt metaphor for the sea of information she helps Northeastern students learn to navigate. 

"There are just too many data out there waiting to be made sense of," says the assistant professor in the Master of Professional Studies in Analytics program, "It's overloaded, and we still have lots of quality issues. That's why companies need good data analysts. These are the people who are going to dig in, find the problems, and make sense of the data."

As a consequence of the information revolution of the past 50 years, making sense of large amounts of data has become big business. In health, finance, marketing, management and other specialized fields -- not to mention traditional business arenas -- companies are investing in analysts who can provide the right tools to sift through figures and create digital lenses to help users make informed decisions. This is part of the reason the College of Professional Studies has developed both bachelor's and master's degree programs in data analysis -- and why Mello has been a leading member of the team mapping those degrees.

"Our program is very general, in a way," she says. "Rather than focusing on business analytics, which is the most common nowadays, we prepare students to take the role of a data analyst or business analyst in any field or any area of the workplace. And we're trying to streamline it. It used to be that you had to do computer science to have a position like that. But when you study computer science, you have to do networking, you have to learn how to program heavily, you have to develop applications. In our bachelor's program, we're saying, let's just focus on what they really need to know to be a data analyst."

The youngest of seven siblings, Mello decided early to chart her own course. Despite pressure from her family and the culture around her, she chose to study electrical engineering.

"One of my brothers looked at me and said, 'are you going to university to find a husband?'" she says. "At the time, in my city, engineering was not a profession for women. There were very few -- four out of 50 [in my class]. It was kind of a challenge. But I wanted to be an independent woman."

While still a student at the Federal University of Bahia, she started programming for the Secretary of Mines and Energy of the State of Bahia. She went on to work as a software engineer for Coelba, Bahia's electric company. She later developed database management applications for the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority and worked as a programmer at MIT, developing an application to integrate and access student information to assign work-study jobs. 

Even as she found success as an engineer and programmer, she says, she had always been interested in teaching. So in the early 2000s, she combined her passions, co-developing a technology-in-education consultancy to help clients such as the MIT Media Lab and Mexico's Center for Digital Culture introduce programming to students of all ages. In 2008, she earned her PhD in Education, Technology and Drama at Tufts University. She joined Northeastern part-time in 2017. 

Her teaching, she says, owes much to the ideas of Seymour Papert, a student of the pioneering Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. She found Papert's book Mindstorm particularly illuminating in developing her own thinking on learning and technology, and she had the opportunity to collaborate directly with him while she was completing her PhD. "Papert worked with Piaget in Switzerland," Mello says. "I worked with Papert at Head Start in Iowa."

In that role, and in subsequent teaching positions at Lesley University, Wentworth Institute of Technology and other institutions of higher education, Mello learned to quickly discern students' deficits in particular subject areas, a skill she would draw upon to identify gaps in learning as she crafted courses of study at Northeastern.

"Working with children, and teaching adults and undergrads and graduate students, you learn how to understand where they are and what are they lacking," she says. "In our master's program we accept students from many backgrounds -- you can have an undergraduate degree in management, in finance, in economics -- so many of them don't yet have the skills they need to do the master's. I could see what they were lacking. And that's what I have been working with our director on. We want to accept those students, so we have to help them. We have to give them the tools to get there."

Something else she admired about Papert, Mello says, was his determination to find novel ways to engage learners. In the Logo programming language he co-developed, for example, children are challenged to write simple programs to manipulate an onscreen cursor or "turtle." They then watch as their proposed solutions play out in real time on their computer screens, learning logical thinking and problem-solving skills in the process. In a similar way, Mello says, she has found that when she poses real, practical challenges to students in her analytics classes, their minds light up.

"What I noticed," she said, "is what engaged the students the most is having a project from a sponsor, a project from an organization that is a real-world problem, where they know we're not making it up."

Her first such project was a 2017 collaboration with a multinational conglomerate that needed a kind of filter for its digital security system. The company had a system in place to flag inappropriate emails and other digital files, but no convenient frame or "dashboard" to collate and review the flood of information the application was generating. One of the company's computer scientists came to Mello's class to present the problem, and her students got to work. 

"I was amazed at how much they engaged with that," she says, "and how excited they were to create that dashboard."

She started looking for similar opportunities, and at a conference last year she heard a data analyst from a major athletic footwear company describe his firm's need to implement predictive analytics. When she suggested a collaboration, he was delighted to provide data for her students to work with, and even attended their presentations on the problem at the end of the course, asking questions and inviting students to apply for internships. Last summer, a Northeastern student won an internship at his company. More recently, the same company asked Mello to let several students in her class know about an opening for a junior data analyst.

"One of the reasons those sponsored partners are with us," Mello says, "is because they're looking for talent." 

For Mello, it's profoundly satisfying to see the pride and ownership her students take in such projects, and the doors that begin to open for them as they master the material. While she enjoys her work creating courses and programs, it's her time in the classroom that means the most.

"I love to design things," she says. "But working with students is my favorite part. That is really the connection that makes me thrive."