Analyze and adapt: Data pros at 4 Chicago companies discuss how trends influence projects

by Alton Zenon III
April 16, 2019

If you work in tech, you know that data impacts nearly every facet of the industry. But that doesn’t make the concept of ‘working with data’ any clearer. In fact, the role of a data analyst can seem as complex and nuanced as the most labyrinthine data sets. Just who are these people responsible for aggregating, navigating and deciphering highly intricate collections of information? And how do they know that they’re using the correct tools to keep up with the pace of their industry?

We spoke with data wizards at four Chicago tech companies to learn how they stay on top of new developments in the field, then use that knowledge to incorporate their data magic into company products and processes. 

 

Morningstar's data team in group photo

Morningstar provides proprietary investment tools and independent analyses to investors of all types across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Data Director Kelly Flowers said automation helps keep things running smoothly for her data team. 

 

How do you stay up to date on the latest data trends in your industry?

We work closely with our data content teams who stay on top of trends in the investment industry and work with us to improve or modify our collection methods, as well as build new data capabilities and data sets. Our teams stay up to date by working with and consulting with our clients, attending investment industry conferences, following industry news and researching upcoming regulatory changes. We also host a twice-monthly guest speaker series to learn how our clients use our data and hear their thoughts on industry trends and what they would like us to focus on.

Our data and our analysts have greatly benefited from robotic process automation over the past year.”

 

How do you adapt your methodologies or technologies as trends evolve, and when have new trends influenced your work?

Regarding automation, many of our data sources do not use standardized formats, so we partner with our technology teams to automate our collection and quality assurance using technologies including robotic process automation, machine learning and natural language processing. Our data and our analysts have greatly benefited from robotic process automation over the past year. With RPA, we’ve been able to automate and scale repetitive tasks, which in turn has freed up our analysts’ time to spend on value-add, subjective and analytical work.

We also adapt our data methodologies, definitions and calculations as trends, nuances, and regulations evolve. One example is the emergence of exchange-traded mutual funds as an investment vehicle type within the last three years. ETMFs have characteristics of both exchange-traded funds and mutual funds, so we’ve had to review and refine our data sources and collection processes to accurately represent this relatively new investment vehicle type.

 

SPINS data team in group photo

SPINS provides companies in the natural, organic and specialty products industries with consultations, consumer insights and analytics to help them reach their ideal customers. Amanda McLaughlin and Caywin Zhuang, senior analysts on the brand growth solutions team, discuss the methods they use to stay in the loop regarding market and consumer changes.

 

How do you stay up to date on the latest data trends in your industry?

McLaughlin: My first source of keeping up with the latest trends is our Consumer Trend Watch, a monthly article that captures the evolving industry landscape. Secondly, SPINS codes individual products by attributes like gluten free, non-GMO, allergen friendly and more. Constantly being in the attribution data allows you to get a glimpse of which products have traction and are growing before they become a mainstream trend.

When analyzing a booming or declining space, I often overlay Google Trends to identify the specific moments in time when consumer interests change.”

How do you adapt your methodologies or technologies as trends evolve, and when have new trends influenced your work?

Zhuang: As trends evolve, I have incorporated more secondary online research to corroborate with insights from point-of-sales data. For instance, when analyzing a booming or declining space, I often overlay Google Trends to identify the specific moments in time when consumer interests change. With the rise of geo-targeted marketing, another example that shows my methodologies have evolved is by heavily leveraging store-level data to identify whether local social media campaigns have been effective. I am continuously challenged by the evolutions in consumer packaged goods and excited to create new approaches for brands and retailers today.

 

ParkWhiz data team in group photo

Need a parking spot in a pinch, or want to secure one while sitting on your couch? ParkWhiz’s platform lets you do just that all across the world. DataOps Engineer Cody Hanson said his team is adaptable, and quick to utilize new tech tools that provide the most benefit to the business. 

 

How do you stay up to date on the latest data trends in your industry?

Internally, we maintain Slack channels where we share and discuss the latest developments in parking, data and tech. We closely follow industry news through blogs and newsletters such as Intermix.io’s SF Data Weekly and Slalom Consulting’s tech blog. We attend conferences and Meetups such as AWS Summit, where we can network with our peers at other companies and share pain points and best practices. We also actively follow new developments and contribute improvement proposals for open source technologies in our stack, such as Apache Airflow.

We believe in constantly evaluating and evolving our existing analytics stack in order to adopt the best tools and processes to support our data needs.”

How do you adapt your methodologies or technologies as trends evolve, and when have new trends influenced your work?

We believe in constantly evaluating and evolving our existing analytics stack in order to adopt the best tools and processes to support our data needs. Recently, we’ve begun adopting methodologies out of the burgeoning DataOps movement. Late last year, we implemented an automated testing and deploy pipeline using a container-based, continuous-integration tool called Drone. This has helped us turn our ideas into actionable insights and new products faster than ever.

 

Geneva Trading's data team

Geneva Trading is an international proprietary trading firm that provides traders with technology, data science and risk management tools. Lead Data Analytics Engineer Chao Wang said the resources he seeks out in his personal and professional life help keep him ahead of the industry knowledge curve. 

 

How do you stay up to date on the latest data trends in your industry?

Almost as a personal hobby, I often get introduced to new technologies and trends by reading tech blogs on Medium, and watching Youtube channels like Google Tech Talks. On the other hand, at my work in the trading industry, users always come with more demanding requirements for data systems, and these new requirements push us to search for newer and better technologies. 

Some systems are now capable of storing and querying nested data structures, and I believe this will transform how we do data analytics.”

How do you adapt your methodologies or technologies as trends evolve, and when have new trends influenced your work?

We often evaluate new technologies as proof-of-concept projects with our users. In the past few years, a major trend has been the enablement of storing and analyzing large amounts of data using columnar stores. We have been successfully using kdb+ to enable traders to gain deep insights into market events happening within microseconds. Yet, we are still actively evaluating new options as more database systems provide columnar store features. On the other hand, some systems are now capable of storing and querying nested data structures, and I believe this will transform how we do data analytics.

 

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