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Advancement staff member wins international data analysis competition

A staff member for the Office of Advancement at Queen’s recently won an international competition for data scientists in the higher education advancement field.

Amber Palmer competed in the inaugural Data Science Dashboard Challenge hosted by the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA). The event was part of Data Science Now, an online symposium bringing together leaders in the field of fundraising analytics to discuss theory, method, and implementation of data-informed fundraising.

“We are very proud of Amber — this is a great accomplishment for her and underscores what an exceptional team we have in Advancement,” says Karen Bertrand, Vice Principal (Advancement). “This recognition is truly well deserved and, on behalf of all her colleagues, I want to offer Amber our heartiest congratulations.”

The Data Science Dashboard Challenge saw contestants receive a set of data that they must present in an accurate, innovative, and usable format.

Advancing to the final four, Palmer faced off with three other data scientist teams from the U.S. They were all tasked with looking at the fundraising progress for a fictional institution for the calendar year. Contestants were then marked on dashboard design and usability. Palmer chose to use Tableau, a data visualization program she uses in her work for Queen’s.

“Each of the finalists approached the task in different ways but we all used Tableau,” she says. “For myself I chose to make it a really focused dashboard. I thought ‘How would our senior leaders use this data? What would they need for the start of their day to inform their decisions going forward?’ Other teams looked at incorporating every data variable that was available in the data set. Or they used Tableau for the analysis but incorporated their visualizations into a briefing document.”

The contest provided Palmer with a number of opportunities, including using her analytic skills for the first time in months as she is currently on maternity leave.

But it also allowed her to challenge herself and step a bit out of her comfort zone.

“I am fairly comfortable with our data in Advancement and this challenge had me working with data sets that I did not have a feel for. In Advancement, I can complete a data analysis and know the numbers are off due to familiarity,” she says. “In the challenge I couldn't go off my institutional knowledge. I had to really make sure that the data was clean and that I understood the variables before moving forward with an analysis. I found the lack of familiarity with the data sets to be a great opportunity to continue to hone my analytical skills while I am of out that day-to-day that I am used to.” 

For Advancement the use of data helps inform high-level decisions on engaging alumni and strengthening the connections with the university and the larger Queen’s community. Accuracy and clarity are of utmost importance.

“I love the discovery that data analysis offers. I love getting into a data set and exploring the trends and relationships that exist. In Advancement, for example, we may make certain assumptions related to a region or an alumni group based on a gut feeling. But when we get into the data, we may see that a different story is at play, one that challenges our previous assumptions,” Palmer explains. “It’s that surface versus detail level of analysis that I find really interesting and really valuable.”  

For Palmer it was a great learning opportunity and a chance to try some new visualizations while also meeting with her peers from around Canada and the U.S. Her experience is sure to benefit the university as well.