How many barbers are there in Chicago? Analytics in the classroom
It is big in business. Now students are crunching the numbers in schools
When the term's timetable was handed out at a Cork school one class must have flinched when they spotted they had maths first thing on a Friday morning.
But when I meet that Transition year class at Davis College in Mallow, a few minutes after nine, I find hands shooting up to offer answers and enthusiastic class participation.
The students are participating in their Analytics programme.
Using a combination of maths, logic and data they are finding their own solutions to real-life problems from what mobile telephone package they should sign up to how best to use local authority funding.
Analytics is now used by companies in areas such as new enterprise, retail, marketing, sales, pricing, risk analysis, and to fight fraud. It pools information to come up with a solution which makes both logical and mathematical sense.
At the top of the class their teacher Eoghan Long is asking the pupils 'how many barber shops are there in Chicago?'
The question isn't as random as it sounds. As part of their Analytics course the students are trying to work out the size of the barber sector in the North American city.
The programme is devised by Accenture PLC, the consultancy firm – in conjunction with the Irish Maths Association and it typically runs for eight weeks.
More than 250 students from across Ireland have taken part in the programme which gets them to run their own company using insights from analytics. It offers them first-hand experience of how to apply maths and statistics beyond the classroom.
"If we get the population of Chicago and then halve it for all the men that live there, that would be a start" says one student. Another thinks out loud, "How many times do men get their hair cut a month?", while a third ponders, "If we think about how many cuts one barber could do in a day we'd be able to work it out."
The key here is that this is an Ordinary Level maths class using maths skills to find a solution.
"I'd never heard of Analytics before we started this programme" says transition-year student James Taylor adding, "but now when I go into a shop I can check whether an offer is really as good as it sounds and whether there are discounts I should be aware of. It changes your way of thinking."
"My family are farmers and I can see how Analytics could be so important for us" explains James Buckley.
"By using it we could work out things like how many acres of silage we should cut and what livestock to buy."
Some of the students, including Mike Forde, indicate they'd be interested in studying Analytics at third level.
"I'm really interested in stuff like this, it's challenging but enjoyable – perhaps this will be the next big thing for businesses in Ireland."
Already both public bodies and private companies across the country are focussing on the discipline as Edel Lynch, Head of Analytics for Accenture Ireland explains:
"We launched our Analytics Innovation Centre three years ago and we've seen a significant interest from across the board. In both the public and private sector there's now an appreciation of the value of Analytics. For many major businesses the process has become invaluable."
And Sean MacCormaic, Chairman of the Irish Maths Association, would like to see more freedom given to teachers to explore modules such an Analytics in a changing educational environment.
"Teachers are often afraid to let go of the old style of maths teaching. We need more emphasis on enquiry-based learning and modules such as Analytics are a great way of making students view maths in a more positive and relevant light."
Analytics – business tool of the future
In a recent report compiled by Forfás and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, it was estimated that by 2020 the country could create up to 21,000 new jobs in data analytics.
"We want to make Ireland an international hub for Analytics and there's no reason why that can't be achieved" Edel Lynch, Accenture Ireland's Head of Analytics told the Irish Independent this week.
The 'Assessing The Demand For Big Data and Analytic Skills' report noted a shortage of data analytics talent internationally indicating there is a significant opportunity for Ireland to corner that market.
And third-level institutions are reacting accordingly.
Analytics courses are now available at universities across the country, such as UCC, UCD and NUIG, and in the coming years more will inevitably be offered to Leaving Certificate students. Though many specialists may have to be drafted in from abroad.