As part of the MSc Business Analytics programme, students complete a dissertation project in partnership with a range of organisations. While many students work with businesses large and small, several students work on projects with charities and social enterprises via UCL’s Community Research Initiative.
This year, one of our students, Markus Tralla, worked with Centrepoint, a charity dedicated to providing accommodation and support to young people who are experiencing homelessness. We caught up with Markus to find out more about his dissertation project and his overall experience with Centrepoint.
Can you tell us a little about your collaboration? what was the experience like?
I worked with Centrepoint, which is a charity that aims to help vulnerable young people move on from homelessness and build a future. They came to our MSc programme’s ‘pitch day’ after our programme lead met them via the Community Research Initiative. They gave a presentation outlining the work they do, what interests them and the kinds of trends and insights they would like to know more about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my dissertation, but I wanted something unique and different, so this really caught my eye.
what was it like working with the centrepoint team?
My collaborators were so engaged and supportive; we had weekly meetings on Zoom for the first few weeks of the collaboration. Sometimes they could be short 10 minute check-ins or sometimes they could be longer and more detailed progress reports. Other times it would be more in-depth conversations about the analysis or findings. I enjoyed learning from them and applying their grounded experience and knowledge of homelessness to the data – my collaborators would often ask if I had included certain variables within my modelling. In one particular case, they asked me to include domestic violence into the analysis, as it is recognised as an important contributor from their experience to homelessness in young people, so it was exciting to see how data could be used to help others.
what were some of the challenges?
I suppose it was a bit challenging when it became clear that Centrepoint were expecting the three students from UCL School of Management to work together on a group project. Though it made sense on a superficial level as we were all students from the same programme at the same university, it wasn’t necessarily achievable because of the individual nature of dissertation projects. We therefore had to explain that we needed to work separately and on separate research questions. This probably seemed strange, but they understood.
Another challenge was managing expectations around what I could realistically achieve on a 3-month master’s project. I had UCL requirements as well to manage. My supervisor played a great role here, helping me to manage my expectations and explain what I could and could not do. I had agreed to some analysis that it became increasingly clear I wouldn’t be able to achieve during the short project. Fortunately, my collaborators were happy with what I was able to do and understood why I couldn’t do it all.
what did you enjoy the most about this collaboration?
Working with my partner organisation, I was able to benefit from a real range of different things. It was nice to be in a working, professional environment and because of this, I met and worked alongside a wide range of people, including the volunteer coordinator and finance teams. I was able to communicate regularly with and learn from the data department head, who had a lot of technical expertise in the data methods I was using as well as the UK data context, such as the ONS [Office for National Statistics] or government data. I liked that it felt a bit like an internship. Working with an organisation gave my dissertation more structure, which increased my motivation - I was eager to do a good job for them.
what are you working on currently with your partner organisation?
My collaborators at Centrepoint had a really clear idea of how they would like the knowledge to be shared, so now that I have submitted my dissertation, I’m creating a webinar for Centrepoint. It will be a short, recorded presentation about the methods and data analytics, the technical side of what we did and what we can show because of that. This will then be sent across the organisation, followed by a scheduled live Q&A webinar designed to give people the opportunity to ask questions and learn more for their area of business.
what have you learnt throughout this experience?
Throughout this collaboration with Centrepoint, I can confidently say that I’ve learned a lot about managing expectations. I have used skills that I already had, such as coding, data cleaning and management, but to a higher and broader degree. I developed my presentation skills and learned about presenting to a different group of people that don’t all necessarily understand the intricacies of analytics, but are really interested in the findings or what different methods can do for them. For example, I presented at my collaborator’s departmental meeting and I was definitely too technical in my approach. I received some useful feedback and made my future presentations more understandable to a mixed audience. I was so pleased when, during my final presentation, someone in the team told me they had understood everything I had said!
what would you say to other students thinking about doing a similar collaboration?
I would encourage all students that have the opportunity to do something like this. My advice to others thinking about it, particularly those that are also studying Business Analytics, would be to go in at the start with a really open mind. Don’t expect to just be immediately up and running with a data set; my experience was that there were quite a few initial conversations that were needed in order to fully understand needs and expectations, as well as doing some data feasibility work before the project scope could be agreed. It’s really important to invest in these conversations and build the relationship and understanding. Also, make sure you are always able to stay flexible!