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Case Studies of Analyzing Data


22 February 2014

We examine two brief case studies of analyzing data to extract predictive patterns.

Example: Hurricane Frances

Consider an example from a New York Times story from 2004:

Hurricane Frances was on its way, barreling across the Caribbean, threatening a direct hit on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Residents made for higher ground, but far away, in Ben‐ tonville, Ark., executives at Wal-Mart Stores decided that the situation offered a great opportunity for one of their newest data-driven weapons … predictive technology.
A week ahead of the storm’s landfall, Linda M. Dillman, Wal-Mart’s chief information officer, pressed her staff to come up with forecasts based on what had happened when Hurricane Charley struck several weeks earlier. Backed by the trillions of bytes’ worth of shopper history that is stored in Wal-Mart’s data warehouse, she felt that the company could ‘start predicting what’s going to happen, instead of waiting for it to happen,’ as she put it. (Hays, 2004)

Consider why data-driven prediction might be useful in this scenario. It might be useful to predict that people in the path of the hurricane would buy more bottled water. Maybe, but this point seems a bit obvious, and why would we need data science to discover it? It might be useful to project the amount of increase in sales due to the hurricane, to ensure that local Wal-Marts are properly stocked. Perhaps mining the data could reveal that a particular DVD sold out in the hurricane’s path—but maybe it sold out that week at Wal-Marts across the country, not just where the hurricane landing was imminent. The prediction could be somewhat useful, but is probably more general than Ms. Dillman was intending.

It would be more valuable to discover patterns due to the hurricane that were not obvious. To do this, analysts might examine the huge volume of Wal-Mart data from prior, similar situations (such as Hurricane Charley) to identify unusual local demand for products. From such patterns, the company might be able to anticipate unusual demand for products and rush stock to the stores ahead of the hurricane’s landfall.

Indeed, that is what happened. The New York Times (Hays, 2004) reported that: “… the experts mined the data and found that the stores would indeed need certain products —and not just the usual flashlights. ‘We didn’t know in the past that strawberry Pop- Tarts increase in sales, like seven times their normal sales rate, ahead of a hurricane,’ Ms. Dillman said in a recent interview. ‘And the pre-hurricane top-selling item was beer.’”

Example: Predicting Customer Churn

How are such data analyses performed? Consider a second, more typical business scenario and how it might be treated from a data perspective. This problem will serve as a running example that will illuminate many of the issues raised in the book[1] and provide a common frame of reference.

Assume you just landed a great analytical job with MegaTelCo, one of the largest telecommunication firms in the United States. They are having a major problem with customer retention in their wireless business. In the mid-Atlantic region, 20% of cell phone customers leave when their contracts expire, and it is getting increasingly difficult to acquire new customers. Since the cell phone market is now saturated, the huge growth in the wireless market has tapered off. Communications companies are now engaged in battles to attract each other’s customers while retaining their own. Customers switching from one company to another is called churn, and it is expensive all around: one company must spend on incentives to attract a customer while another company loses revenue when the customer departs.

You have been called in to help understand the problem and to devise a solution. Attracting new customers is much more expensive than retaining existing ones, so a good deal of marketing budget is allocated to prevent churn. Marketing has already designed a special retention offer. Your task is to devise a precise, step-by-step plan for how the data science team should use MegaTelCo’s vast data resources to decide which customers should be offered the special retention deal prior to the expiration of their contracts.

Think carefully about what data you might use and how they would be used. Specifically, how should MegaTelCo choose a set of customers to receive their offer in order to best reduce churn for a particular incentive budget? Answering this question is much more complicated than it may seem initially. We will return to this problem repeatedly through the book[1], adding sophistication to our solution as we develop an understanding of the fundamental data science concepts.

In reality, customer retention has been a major use of data mining technologies—especially in telecommunications and finance businesses. These more generally were some of the earliest and widest adopt‐ ers of data mining technologies.


[1] Foster Provost and Tom Fawcett, Data Science for Business, O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2013.

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