University of Houston

Our goal is to continue to face the challenges that business organizations face, building the skills of our students while working with these partners.

Norman Johnson, professor of decision sciences at the Bauer College of Business

TIBCO & The University of Houston Collaborate to Give Students a Competitive Advantage in the Energy Industry

Industry collaboration, students prepared for the workforce, analysis that answers questions

The University of Houston (UH) is a leading research and academic institution with more than 45,000 students and 2,600 faculty. It is ranked among the best colleges in America—with innovative research centers, one of the most diverse student populations in the nation, and international leaders among its alumni. Its goal is to prepare students to envision their future, emerge as leaders, and launch careers that transform the world.

Located in the energy capital of the country, one of the University’s initiatives is to prepare students for a career in one of today’s most data-rich industries, Oil and Gas. To ensure students succeed in this workplace, it's important to prepare them with analytical skills.

One of the ways the university is doing this is through the C.T. Bauer College of Business, which offers programs including Management Information Systems (MIS) and an energy-specific MBA program, both designed to prepare leaders through immersion in the energy sector. Both programs have a heavy emphasis on data analysis.

Competition for educational programs supporting local industry is fierce among Texas universities. While other universities have programs related to energy, they are not targeted specifically at students who need to develop their expertise. UH is appealing to incoming students because of its compelling data visualization program and a faculty committed to implementing data visualization in the classroom.

Moving to data visualization

Prior to using a data visualization tool, UH was teaching statistical concepts using Excel. That tool limited students’ ability to perform a rigorous data analysis and present a story about trends and patterns.

About two years ago, the college decided it was important to have a focus on visual analytics. Visualization used to be taught in a business intelligence course; However, with more companies using dashboards to make inferences about data, the faculty saw the need to create a standalone course that focused on visual analytics.

Now, the university is using the course to introduce statistical analysis and support inferencing before performing a rigorous analysis. This method has been transformative for teaching important concepts.

UH & TIBCO Collaboration

With the data visualization decision came the need to decide what data analytics tool to use in the course. Since the university has a strong connection to the oil and gas industry, and TIBCO Spotfire software is the industry's tool of choice, it made sense for the university to use Spotfire analytics as part of the data visualization curriculum. This gives students an advantage going into the workforce, because they already have experience with the tools they would likely be working with after graduation.

Part of the university's goal is to forge collaborative, long-term relationships with providers of business solutions, and the staff identified TIBCO as one of the main providers in the analytics space. UH wants to work on challenges with its partners, learn from the development of their solutions, and use these solutions to give students the skills to become proficient with the applications they provide.

"Our goal is to continue to face the challenges that business organizations face, building the skills of our students while working with these partners,” said Norman Johnson, professor of decision sciences at the Bauer College of Business.

The study of decision sciences aligns well with one of the major upsides of Spotfire software: faster insights and better decisionmaking. Implementing the system at the college level gives students more visibility into data and allows them to develop insights faster and acquire better decision-making skills.

Preparing students for the workforce

Students with analytical skills have a great advantage going into the workplace. The current workforce typically is not trained in any analytics tools, so there is a significant skills gap. While companies are focusing on developing these skills, not all university programs are providing students with the education relevant to these skills yet.

Analytics doesn't just mean crunching numbers. Students need to recognize that analytics also means data management and making sense of the data. These two aspects will better prepare students for their careers.

"We are bridging the gap by preparing our students, enabling them to enter the workforce with the skills they need," said Johnson. "I think companies will have an enormous benefit by having such skilled workers right from the start."

By teaching with Spotfire software as one of several real world tools, UH is giving students the analytical skills they need to be successful in the real world. Since many oil and gas companies are already heavily invested in Spotfire analytics, students having those skills and experience are going to be quickly productive in the workplace.

"It's critical for students coming out of the UH program to be confident in managing their data," said Cassie Collier, a Ph.D. student in the Bauer College of Business. "Data is the biggest asset that companies have right now, and the ability for a new employee to feel confident managing their data, manipulating the data, and see what stories it has to tell, adds so much value."

Spotfire software in the classroom

In the classroom, professors are doing a deep dive into all realms of analytics. They are offering courses with a focus on descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive analytics. They are also planning on making a significant investment in natural language processing and artificial intelligence because they recognize the importance of those technologies for the future of analytics.

They not only teach analytics, but general data visualization practices. Students are learning how to locate, clean, and organize their data, and how data visualization works in terms of design: type fonts, color, use of space, shapes, and markers. These practices help the students understand how humans actually process information.

“The objective of the data visualization course is to give students an understanding of how visualization can help them create a rich story to explain data and solve a problem or create an opportunity," said Blake Ives, chair of business leadership and professor at the Bauer College of Business. "We want them to understand that you can use data visualization for exploration and discovery, but also for persuasion and storytelling."

Spotfire software is so robust for data visualization because it has many functions built into it. The tool enables users to explore and modify data in a compelling and enjoyable way. Because of these capabilities, UH data visualization classes not only draw students with an analytics background, but also those with a creative background. Students with engineering, math, and statistics backgrounds attend the classes, as well as those who are artsy, good with words and pictures, and are attracted to the graphical storytelling aspects.

"No matter what skills that you come to us with or what your interests are, data visualization is going to help a lot," said Ives.

Specifically, professors are applying visual analytics to the commercial aspects of energy and commodity economics. With this approach, students have the foundation for examining markets along with the terminology being used in the industry. They talk about supply and demand and current events affecting the industry through an analytical framework. They can aggregate data and build models to draw conclusions.

In the energy analysis class, students pulled data from five areas: geopolitics, monetary flows, fundamentals, supply and demand, and import-exports. They use data visualizations to back up their observations and provide an analysis, including their predictions.

Tools like Spotfire analytics facilitate the understanding of what's going on in the marketplace, allowing students to access current information at an unbelievable speed. As a result, students can take raw data and turn it into a presentation that tells a story, with visualizations that demonstrate what the data means and how it brings value to an organization.

"By taking the analytics class, I was able to not just create graphs, but to take the data and turn it into a graph that answered a question that could further develop into bigger questions that needed more data to find the answers," said Daniel Burns, a recent graduate.

Using data to answer students’ own questions

The incorporation of a visual analytics tool into the UH curriculum has provided enormous benefits to students, allowing them to use their creativity and showcase their talents. They can use the software to explore data to answer their own questions. They take what they learn about data visualization and apply it to issues they feel strongly about. They find concrete examples in the data of why the issue is an issue.

"It's always an exciting moment for students to start to see trends and patterns, and really grasp their data in ways that wouldn't have been possible without some of the tools," said Collier.

An example of one of these passion projects is a global electrification dashboard created by recent MBA graduate Zeinab Zamani. The goal of the project was to view energy development outside of the US to identify possible investment areas. The data collected allows investors to see various energy projects and find potentially valuable investments based on the needs of that country.

"I want to make investment more powerful with the data tool, give more useful and more tangible solutions for clients and investors," said Zamani.

Students gain a sense of accomplishment and pride when they can apply what they learn in the classroom to an area they are interested in. The data becomes an asset for them, enabling them to come to their own conclusions and present their findings to encourage change.

"When you solve an analytics problem, you get a sense of validation for your competence and that’s important to our students," said Johnson. "It gives them greater confidence and it makes them want to be more creative and take more chances because they know they have the tools and the skills to get things done."

What's next for analytics at UH?

UH has seen success in the program through increased enrollment. It's an encouraging metric for the university, especially since the program is still taking off.

"What better place to learn about energy and finance than at a business school that offers energy and finance classes?" said Burns. "It sells itself."

One way the university is going to expand is by offering data visualization in the undergraduate curriculum, which will include more hands-on skill acquisition. The university is also expecting to expand into the healthcare curriculum because it is another large industry of focus.

The next goal for UH? Building more relationships with the corporate world. University management wants to let companies know that they have students with the capabilities to solve problems using innovative tools. Once the connection has been made among the students, the university, and the company, UH will be able to close the loop on the overall objective. But for the immediate future, school staff is focusing on building strong relationships with the companies they want to work with.

"In the past, we didn't emphasize how important it is to formulate a way that makes it solvable, and that's a different level of understanding problem specification," said Johnson. "Now, because we saw that formulating problems led to innovation and creativity for companies, we started to emphasize aspects of those."

UH already has a good relationship with the energy industry, but leveraging tight relationships with companies like TIBCO has helped make it even stronger, with data being the magic ingredient. By integrating powerful visual analytics into its programs, the university can leverage its resources and enable contacts with other industry players, ensuring the continued success of the program.

"I think the University of Houston is developing a unique program that's combining these data analytics skills with a sophisticated statistical background," said Collier. "It's a place where students can come out well-rounded with a great business school education and a tangible skill set that they can use in the workplace."

University of Houston

The University of Houston prepares students for Oil & Gas industry careers with programs that have a heavy emphasis on data analysis.