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Grad Students vs. Homelessness

a screenshot from Zoom
A new opportunity for Pitt students to be catalysts for change is underway in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.

Five teams of graduate students will present their solutions on Friday, March 26—virtually, of course—in the final round of the Katz school’s first-ever Super Analytics Challenge.

They’re teaming up with alumni, corporate partners and local nonprofits to solve real-world problems using their business and leadership skills in this new community-based initiative, which the Katz school plans to make an annual event. Follow along via the hashtag #KatzImpact.

In this inaugural challenge, the interdisciplinary student teams are using data modeling and business analytics techniques to address the issue of homelessness in the Pittsburgh region.

More on the Super Analytics Challenge

Hear more about the inaugural challenge from Sara Moeller, associate dean for graduate programs and executive education in the Katz school, in this conversation with the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s Jonathan Kersting.  

“Our team at Pitt Business is working alongside the University and Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) to examine scenarios that either led people and families into becoming homeless, or factors which may prevent homelessness,” said Christopher Barlow, director of corporate engagement and career services in the Katz school. “Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, homelessness was selected as our focus because of its increasing prevalence as a global issue.”

Nearly 40 graduate students from the Katz school, the School of Computing and Information and the Swanson School of Engineering applied for 25 spots across five teams that came together in February.

In this final week of the challenge, students are wrapping up their recommendations and finalizing their solutions in a hackathon-style competition.

The teams will present their proposals to a team of judges on Friday. Their work also will be summarized in an Impact Report, to be published later this spring. In addition, students may have opportunities for summer fellowships under the Katz Bridge Program to advance their proposed solutions.  

“The goal is for all student teams to generate innovative solutions that Allegheny County DHS may implement,” said Andrew Hannah, an adjunct professor and executive-in-residence at Pitt Business. “Solutions will be judged not only on the depth of their analytical thinking, but also the pragmatism of the solution proposed.

DHS provided some high-impact questions for the students to consider as they framed a problem and created a methodology using available datasets. The teams have been helped along the way by an advisory committee that includes representatives from partners at UPMC, Highmark, Accenture, SAP, the National Association of Counties and the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

SDLC Partners, the Staunton Farm Foundation and the Homeless Children’s Education Fund have also been supporting community partners, sharing their expertise and subject knowledge with Pitt students.

These experienced executives, subject-matter specialists and analytical methods experts not only assisted in shaping the challenge, but also shared their expertise and experience to guide and coach the graduate student teams.

Pitt’s diverse community of students have brought their own depth of insights and perspectives to the challenge.

We’re using our skills learned at Katz to dig deep into the data and draw some useful and applicable solutions. It’s helped me realize what we can do to better support homeless people in need.

Cara Chun Zhang, student in the Management Information Systems program

Said Carloz Gil, who’s pursuing an MBA with business analytics, was raised in Monterrey, Mexico, where he grew up seeing homelessness in his own community. “Having a place to call home really resonated with me because of those early experiences,” said Gil, who recently purchased his first home. “The pandemic gave me a new perspective on what it is like to have or not have a home when you need it the most.

"Working on this project has taught me not only how complex the issue of homelessness is, but also how solutions require the use of technical skills in tandem with a personal approach. In this day and age, the use of data analytics is necessary to tackle issues like this, but that will only go so far unless there is a more human side to the equation."

“To me it’s a very meaningful project,” said Cara Chun Zhang, a student from China in the Katz Management Information Systems master’s program. “As a new international student who came to the United States not very long ago, I worried that I might not have enough knowledge on the challenge. We’re using our skills learned at Katz to dig deep into the data and draw some useful and applicable solutions. It’s helped me realize what we can do to better support homeless people in need.”

Rebecca Farabaugh, who works in marketing communications in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and is a student in the Katz MS in Marketing Science program, said the opportunity to explore using data for good drew her to the challenge.

“The most meaningful and impactful part of my experience so far has been connecting to people affected by homelessness in Allegheny County and listening to their experience,” she said. “My team’s project was inspired by one person’s story and their personal insight into what makes transitioning to stable housing so difficult. They encouraged us to see it through their eyes, in order to identify the most significant barriers and meaningful action. Connecting the data to the human experience is crucial when working on an issue as complex as homelessness, and my efforts to understand that experience have been eye opening.”

Pittsburgh native Erin Kust, a student in the Katz Part-Time MBA program who works full-time at Highmark Health, said the focus of the challenge and the opportunity to improve the community resonated.

“I have seen the homelessness crisis in this area firsthand, and the thought of contributing to a meaningful solution was exciting,” said Kust. “If I can use my skills in business strategy and analysis to help reduce homeless experiences in Allegheny County, then it is well worth the time and effort.” 

The Katz school plans to continue the Super Analytics Challenge as a signature event, benefiting a different community partner every year.

“The Super Analytics Challenge is an example of Pitt Business reinventing business education,” said Sara Moeller, associate dean for graduate programs and executive education. “Our strategic goals include doing more to partner with our community as a catalyst for change, and to combine classroom concepts with integrated learning opportunities.

“Events like the Super Analytics Challenge showcase our students’ ability to use their leadership knowledge for good. We hope that these collective efforts not only enrich our students’ learning experience, but leave a positive impact on the wider Pittsburgh community.”

To view the March 26 final presentations, //cbarlow [at] katz.pitt.edu">contact Christopher Barlow to request an invitation to the virtual event.