Keri McConnell

Sr. Director, Data Literacy & Analytics Skills Office, Co-Director of Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute

Industry and Academia: Our Differences Are Our Competitive Advantage

In June 2018, we officially launched the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute (NMDSI), a collaboration between Northwestern Mutual, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). Simply put, our goal is to use data science to help solve real-world problems while advancing the talent pipeline for future generations of data science experts. This kind of industry and academic partnership requires a lot of teamwork and collaboration. Naturally, the cultures in academia and industry are very different, and as we continue to advance the NMDSI, we’ve learned that our cultural differences provide a competitive advantage.

As our partnership matures, we’ve seen how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In 2019, we saw a 50 percent increase in data science program applicants, awarded scholarships to 39 students, and delivered more than 1,500 hours of training. The NMDSI represents a collaboration that amplifies our impact on students, businesses and the community in a way none of us could do on our own.

We all bring strengths to the table

Marquette and UWM have some of the most brilliant minds in the field of data science, advancing the practice across all disciplines and educating nearly 60 percent of undergraduate students in southeast Wisconsin. Our partners at these universities are the absolute experts in how to design effective academic programs and are at the forefront of preparing the next generation of data science professionals, helping address the talent gap in the business world. Northwestern Mutual’s expertise lies in our reputation as a leader in an industry driven by data. Our data scientists bring their skills and experiences to the table through their own innovations and knowledge. As data science is an ever-evolving field, continuous learning and education is required. By leveraging the NMDSI, Northwestern Mutual is on the leading edge of data science, ensuring our professionals are ahead of the curve in new trends and methodologies.

Our work in action

Where our individual expertise intersects is the sweet spot for transformation. By utilizing faculty at each university to educate current professionals, and by pairing students studying the field of data science with actual work in the community, the impact of the NMDSI is apparent.

We’ve called on our academic partners to help us accelerate upskilling and reskilling professionals who are already in the workforce. For example, we recently saw a need to increase Python programming skills in our data science and analytics department. We arranged for faculty members to teach a workshop for our employees, and through this direct engagement with our university partners, we saved time in vendor comparisons and were able to customize the program to meet our specific business needs. We've also hosted several workshops, including an annual symposium on the Ethics of Big Data, and partnered with LOMA to deliver a course on Insurance Immersion for Data Scientists. Strengthening the knowledge and skills of Northwestern Mutual’s workforce not only makes us stronger as a company; it also attracts new talent to our team.

In the talent space, students at both universities are helping solve community challenges using data science. We recently finished the Walnut Way Data Dream project, where students from both universities worked with Walnut Way Conservation Corp, a non-profit organization in Milwaukee, to gather and analyze 20 years of data from various sources and determine how it can be leveraged to promote home ownership and economic sustainability in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood. Their research will be used to influence city and neighborhood planning and generate additional resources to be funneled to this area.

Another team of faculty and students is currently working on a project we call Elecurator, which tracks the major issues engaging both candidates and voters in the 2020 presidential election cycle. Using a technique known as “social curation,” the team is analyzing multiple sources of data to see which topics are important to voters and how the candidates are speaking about said issues. Students are learning how to analyze and visualize the data and how to draft and publish their insights.

The NMDSI has provided these students with more than 1,200 hours of real-world data science practice and application that will prove to be invaluable as they enter the workforce. This is the kind of impact and hands-on experience we envision for all students who want a future in the field of data science.

A true partnership

Most days, it’s hard to believe the NMDSI is already two years old. Much of our early work was focused on laying a foundation that has been instrumental to our success, and we’re already seeing the positive impact it’s having on the Milwaukee community. At the same time, we’re still in our infancy in a way. We have some big goals to achieve and are just starting to make progress.

Although we come from different cultures – a private Jesuit institution (Marquette), a state-run university (UWM) and a large corporation (Northwestern Mutual) – we are united around a shared goal to make Milwaukee a premier destination for data science talent. Together, we overcome obstacles, stay connected, listen to each unique perspective and find the best solution. I'm so proud to be part of this groundbreaking partnership and I invite you to watch us as we continue to grow!

Sign up here to join the NMDSI mailing list.