UChicago students leverage data to craft innovative business solutions

Team in innovative analytics program creates strategy to help Goose Island boost beer sales

Since it was founded three decades ago, Goose Island Beer Company has expanded well beyond its humble roots in Chicago. But despite rapid growth and expansion across the world, the brewery recently began facing a sales bottleneck in its hometown.

To help find a solution, it partnered with an innovative graduate program at the University of Chicago. The Master of Science in Analytics trains students on how to leverage big data to help companies solve real-world problems. Students work directly with a business to identify a problem, build a research method, and—after considerable number-crunching and rigorous analysis—develop a creative solution with immediate impact.

In the case of Goose Island, a three-student team began studying Chicago's liquor distribution business model, with the goal of helping the company put its sales team—and its beer—in more neighborhoods across the city. It started by gathering more than two million rows of information on 2,500 retailers. Then the team leveraged the methods and skills members were learning at UChicago to turn the data into insights on sales forecasts, customer demographics and opportunities for expansion.

“The fact that there’s no predetermined path or framework to follow challenged us to explore many approaches that would solve the problem,” said James Bushnell, one of the team members, who works in financial planning and analysis. “The optimal data and solutions are initially unknown, so you have to objectively trace the challenge through each approach to find its logical end.”

The distinct strengths of the UChicago program go beyond subject matter. While many master’s projects are compressed into a single quarter, UChicago integrates its capstone project into an entire year’s curriculum, helping students gain the knowledge they need to stay on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving field.

Since the program began in 2013, dozens of student teams have performed real-life consulting, collaborating with companies and organizations to find clever solutions for their unique problems. In past years, one student team used Markov chains to detect credit card fraud, another studied the NFL resale market in order to optimize ticket sales, while another used neural networks to analyze users’ yoga postures.

“Capstone students have to be very diligent, and understand the business requirements as well as the data side equally well—because one satisfies the other,” said Anil Chaturvedi, an instructor in the program. 

Rethinking how they do things

In dealing with real statistics in real business environments, students in the analytics program earn industry experience through the program’s transformative approach to analytics instruction. While some master’s programs deal in hypothetical calculations with canned data or problem sets, students in the MScA program draw upon public data as well as data provided by partner organizations or their employers.

For the UChicago team working with Goose Island, that meant developing an approach that classified customer types based on sales patterns. In its final presentation to company officials, the team made recommendations that impacted delivery routes, wholesalers and distributors—and it predicted a 72% increase in sales if Goose Island followed its recommendations.

“When you’re communicating to your stakeholders and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re trying to do,’ they might not be interested in the machine learning techniques,” said team member Jon Worthey, who works in human capital data science. “But they’ll sure be interested in what comes out of the models.”

Working with a data-driven team from UChicago was a real asset for Goose Island; despite a staff of 400 employees, the company only has one dedicated analyst.

“We have all matter of data,” said Matt Condon, director of performance at Goose Island, “but the guys from the University of Chicago team could really make that data sing.”