ASA DataFest 2016 exceeded my expectations

College students at DataFest working late at night

Analyze, network, experience. This is what you can expect from DataFest. As a statistics major at UCLA, I greatly anticipated participating in this “big data” event because of the excitement former participants had instilled in me and because of the popularity it has here at the university. Throughout the 48 hours of DataFest, my two team members and I worked unremittingly with the data in attempts to derive meaningful information from millions of data points. Never having participated in this event before, I did not know what to anticipate or how to begin once my team and I (Team Alpha) received the data, but what I did know was that the energy was high, the room was electric, and that we were dedicated to the challenge of turning raw numbers into a meaningful narrative through data analysis within two days.


DataFest commenced on Friday evening. After putting in about five hours the first day, my team and I returned on Saturday and worked all night until the competition ended on Sunday at 12:05 pm. While most students were sleeping or rendezvousing, us DataFesters coded into the dark and early hours of the morning to understand what story the data was telling — for enjoyment.

This year’s data came from Ticketmaster®, and the first thing we sought to do was come up with a question the data could answer. Since we are conditioned to finding answers for class assignments, coming up with a question presented our team with a hurdle. After hours of discussion, we reached a consensus and knew what we wanted to do: create a function that determines who are the “true and loyal customers.” And the exuberance our team had to create this function was my favorite part of DataFest. The camaraderie was palpable, as we animatedly sketched out our ideas on whiteboards and chatted with each other. Through my team experience and observing other teams, I learned that teamwork is extremely essential in order to accomplish the overall objectives and goals of any unit. After hours of coding, we would take turns experiencing “coder’s block”, and through encouragement and mutual support, we created a workplace synergy that helped us move past it. Through each other, we became collectively responsible for outcomes achieved, and were incentivized to perform at higher levels. While I have worked under pressure with other teams for class projects, it does not compare to this experience. This event highlighted that working effectively in a team environment facilitates the success of developing, formulating, and implementing new and innovative ideas.

DataFest Team Alpha

DataFest Team Alpha

Now, to handle the big data. My team and I used R to parse the Ticketmaster data. This has been, by far, the richest, most complex data we’ve ever seen. Because of the magnitude of the data, we had many avenues of analysis and many questions. Fortunately, we had professors, graduate students, and data science professionals there to offer advice and answer the questions. We often found ourselves becoming absorbed by the enormity of the data; this is when the professionals would come into play and help us see the bigger picture.

On Sunday afternoon, we presented our findings to other teams and a panel of judges, comprised of statistics professors, industry professionals, and representatives. Teams competed to win one of these three categories:

  • Best Insight
  • Best Use of External Data
  • Best Visualization

Everyone was impressed with what others had excavated from the densely woven data. The vast differences between the findings in each presentation stressed how we all ask different questions and offer different solutions. For many of us, DataFest reaffirmed our affinity for data science and statistics; we are unquestionably those who aspire to animate data on charts, turning a vague concept into a visual to internalize the issue discussed, endeavoring to tell the story of the numbers.

Would I recommend DataFest? With highest regard. In addition to handling big data, we learned invaluable new methods, computational skills, and got pretty neat swag. My team and I eagerly await DataFest 2017.


Editor’s note: Joanna is a student of Rob Gould, founder of DataFest, and a professor of statistics at UCLA.


About the Author
Joanna Navarro

Joanna Navarro

Joanna Itzel Navarro is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in statistics and minoring in Spanish. She currently does research in education and computational cancer biology, implementing statistics as a tool to address a social agenda. “With statistics, you get not only the beauty and pleasure of pure math, but also the ability to simplify and present complex ideas in a comprehensible and transparent manner,” says Joanna. After completing her undergraduate degree, she plans to continue her studies in graduate school.