Business analysts are combining analytics and “War Games”-like competitions to bring staff training to an entirely different level in Charlotte, N.C.

The city hosts a business intelligence (BI) Olympiad every two years, where business unit teams from various city departments compete to address a fictional problem or incident with analytics and data sets. Each group comes up with a solution and creates a visual presentation on how the crisis was affecting the business interest they were monitoring.

The BI Olympiad started in 2008, chiefly with an IT perspective according to Jim Raper, manager of data administration for the city of Charlotte. He said that the competition was aimed at empowering city departments in Charlotte to use software tools to research data for reports themselves, instead of relying on the city’s IT staff to compile information and write reports.

“The positive result was that the various business units were introduced to the idea of visual analytics,” Raper said. “But more importantly, analysts from across various business groups in the city had gotten together and looked at things commonly.”

In the BI Olympiad, each team picks a business problem, finds that data behind it and presents it to decision makers in the form of a dashboard. Then the final round of competition gives teams a crisis scenario to tackle, with 24 hours to find a solution with the appropriate data to support their plan.

The first BI Olympiad featured 11 teams from seven different business units and took place on Halloween 2008, with Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services department — with the team name of “Trash Talkers” — taking first place.

The competition was held again in Dec. 2010, this time using a fictional trio of a hurricane, bio-terrorism event, and a gasoline price spike of more than $4 per gallon in downtown Charlotte. Using city data sets, Charlotte’s Planning Department — aka the “PlanBots” — won. The competition had 10 different teams comprised from nine different business units in the city.

The competition was judged by two panels, one consisting of city management personnel and another made up of technical experts from Tableau Software, a business intelligence tool developer; a senior data architect from a consulting firm and two professors from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

All teams could use a variety of data analytics and reporting tools, including Tableau Software, Microsoft Reporting Services, Esri and Microsoft Excel. Those tools are used on a daily basis by business analysts working for the city.

“The underlying benefit was with Hurricane Irene coming up the coast almost on the same track as the theoretical Hurricane Vixen from December, teams were more used to looking at contingencies and how they affected portions of their businesses,” Raper said.

“It increased the awareness of the teams that they had to be able to report on a daily basis [during the course] of normal business, but also have to be able to react to a crisis situation and do it very quickly and that was a big plus,” he added. “We looked at Hurricane Irene coming and we were a bit calmer in Charlotte.”

Positive Developments

Raper said his department had been using Tableau Software’s business intelligence tool for about a year, but it wasn’t until the BI Olympiad that other city departments took notice of the capabilities BI tools have and how they could help increase the speed and efficiency of city services.

He added that he’s seen a measurable increase in the ability of business units to produce reports more quickly compared to how long it would have taken for IT staff to compile the information and deliver a report.

“From the use of the software tools ... what we are seeing is a 10-to-20-fold increase in the ability of an analyst to quickly produce the information by the decision maker and then go to the next step — digging deeper, looking for anomalies and looking why the response time may be greater in one neighborhood as opposed to another,” Raper explained.

The first BI Olympiad in 2008 spurred the BI community in Charlotte to get together regularly to discuss tools, techniques and best practices. Raper said the group now has more than 100 members and said the “big win” for the city and Charlotte residents is that a lot of information that previously had not be shared is now shared regularly between BI analysts throughout the city.

City leaders in Charlotte have also seen the value provided by the BI Olympiad. Raper said that several from the BI community met with four assistant city managers in Charlotte in August about continuing the competition and the four unanimously agreed that the BI Olympiad should go forward. The next competition is scheduled for March/April 2012.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.