Haub School Review Fall 2017

Designing Data: Saint Joseph's Leads the Way with Data Visualization

Designing Data 2

By Marisa (Fulton) Benjamin ’03

The social media footprint of Corey Jones’ ’16  isn’t just comprised of Facebook posts and photos on Instagram. It’s also filled with elaborate and engaging infographics — charts and graphs detailing complex data on topics ranging from Apple’s sales in the past ten years to the Philadelphia 76ers “Trust the Process” timeline.

Jones has mastered Tableau, a revolutionary and interactive data visualization software that has taken the academic and business worlds by storm. Tableau takes the information in databases and spreadsheets and produces visually appealing and understandable graphs, tables and dashboards; turning large amounts of data into works of art. Users have incredible capabilities at their fingertips — a set of tools that allows them to quickly transform complicated concepts into easily digestible charts, images and graphics.

Data has never been so exciting or in-demand in the corporate world. Increasingly, businesses operate on data-driven decision models, requiring them to find ways to make sense of the vast amount of information arriving on their digital doorstep with each passing second. This is where robust business intelligence tools like Tableau come in. Thanks to Haub’s cutting-edge academic business intelligence & analytics (BIA) program in the decision and system sciences (DSS) department that is closely aligned with industry needs, Saint Joseph’s University graduates like Jones are in the middle of the action, being recognized as influential in the space, and are quickly getting hired by leading companies looking to benefit.

Long before graduation, Jones was recruited to an associate financial analyst position at Johnson & Johnson. He has since been recognized as a Tableau ambassador.   

“I am constantly getting emails from companies seeking students with a Tableau skillset,” says Katherine Campbell Garwood, Ph.D., assistant professor of decision and system sciences.

“Data is hot right now in business,” says Ronald K. Klimberg, Ph.D., professor of decision and system sciences. “Thanks to advances in technology, the variety, volume and velocity of data we are able to access and analyze today is unbelievable. Companies want to use analytics to their benefit.”

Students in SJU’s BIA program learn how to help organizations understand data and use the information to make strategic business decisions and identify trends. While all Haub students are first introduced to Tableau in the business analytics course DSS 220, those in the BIA major continue to learn and master the software in advanced classes, says Virginia Miori, Ph.D., associate professor of decision systems and sciences.

“In the last academic year, we saw the biggest surge in Tableau use,” says Miori. “Our department took the time to build institutional knowledge around the use and value of the software, and we now have full faculty support and reach.”

Jones, who was an accounting and business intelligence & analytics double major, first developed a deeper interest in Tableau during his senior year. Along with classmate and fellow Tableau enthusiast Thomas O’Hara ’16 and graduate student Amarendranath (Amar) Reddy Donthala ’17 (M.S.), he created a weekly Tableau User Group — an SJU community dedicated to exposing new users to the software that provides an opportunity to drop in and create a data set alongside seasoned users. They also participated in “MakeOverMonday,” a challenge that invites Tableau users worldwide to create a new data set each week in a captivating way.

“The Tableau User Group was a huge success. We had undergraduates and graduate students, professors, alumni and individuals from the Jesuit community show up,” says Campbell Garwood, who facilitated the group. “One of the students or alumni gives an introduction about Tableau and then leads a 30-minute lesson on how to use the software.”

Under Campbell Garwood’s direction, students created visualizations for several different organizations including SJU’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support and CBRE real estate company. In addition, the success and popularity of the Tableau Student Group paved the way for a weekly speaker series of Tableau experts, including several SJU alumni: Robert Lage ’16  from Quest Diagnostics; Cassandra Beck ’12, ’15 (M.S.) from Johnson & Johnson; and Zachary Leahan ’09 from PwC.

The creators of MakeOverMonday took notice of the group’s engagement and activity. “I’m especially pleased that a university is taking a leading role in educating its students not just on the concepts of analytics and business intelligence, enabling them to learn the right skills in their course so they are equipped when they enter the workforce,” wrote Eva Murray, Tableau evangelist for EXASOL and co-founder of MakeOverMonday, in a blog post about SJU. “With this kind of multiplier effect, the next generation of knowledge workers in the data and analytics industry looks like a force to be reckoned with.”

“People don’t want to get lost in numbers; they want to see and understand what the data are telling them,” says Campbell Garwood. “Our students have a real advantage: They can build a comprehensive portfolio before they graduate and showcase their Tableau expertise to potential employers.”

"People don’t want to get lost in numbers; they want to see and understand what the data are telling them."  Katherine Campbell Garwood, Ph.D.

Like Jones, O’Hara and Donthala were sought by their employer, Comcast, specifically for their skillset in data visualization and mastery of Tableau. Other recent graduates from the program have been hired at companies including Optoro, PwC and Lincoln Financial Group.

“At J&J, we are trying to bring a more standardized approach to how we analyze key financial metrics across the company,” says Jones. “Tableau is helping the company become a more efficient financial organization and uncover valuable insights in our data. Data analytics is becoming a skill many more industries are seeking out. SJU deserves a lot of credit in recognizing Tableau’s importance and giving students opportunities to master it.”