Data Dive: Second Harvest - an Opportunity for Students to Use Data for Good

Data Dive: Second Harvest - an Opportunity for Students to Use Data for Good

Frank Ellmo from Second Harvest gives and introduction into the processes within their warehouse.

Next Data Dive is March 27th and 28th
Click here to find out more and register

How do you give students an opportunity to work with data and also help out a local non-profit orgniazation?  Have a Data Dive!

The Data Dive concept is to provide a hackathon style event for students to work on real world data.  On March 29th and 30th, the Data Science Institute at MTSU hosted the first Data Dive, with the data partner being Second Harvest. 

A team getting help from the Second Harvest crew.


According to Frank Ellmo, Director of Operations at Second Harvest,

"Data Dives offer a great opportunity for students to test-drive their book knowledge in "real-world" applications with no need and frankly, no ability, to solve for the "right" answer because the biggest a-ha is that there is no right answer! Instead, for a few hours, there is real-time give-and-take, real-life "what-if" pondering, and ultimately, really cool thinking to surface better questions which drive better answers, approaches, answers and proposals. And the minute we think we have all the answers, we change all the questions! Welcome to real-life. It is a great experiential exercise for all who participate."

The genesis for this event was Hack MT, which is a Hackathon that is put on by the Computer Science Department at MTSU. At this year's Hack MT, Dr. Charlie Apigian partnered with Second Harvest to analyze their data for 36 hours.  The result was 2nd place overall and the winner of the Hacker's Choice Award (to read more about the event, click here).  This opportunity to analyze data that has real world implications gave students the opportunity understand that the hardest part of analysis is usually understanding the business problem and how the data supports or contradicts what is happening within their organization.  The agenda for the event was the following:

Friday, March 29th

  • 9AM - Introduce the problem and rules for the hackathon
  • 10AM - divide into groups and get started looking at the data
  • 11:30AM - Lunch
  • 12:30PM - Quick feedback and summaries from groups
  • 3PM - group work concludes for the day

Saturday, March 30th

  • 8AM - Doors open to start start day and group work
  • 11AM - Groups are asked to start wrapping it up
  • 12:00PM - Groups present their results and findings

On Friday, the day started with an introduction into the processes of Second Harvest and a look at the date that they have that ties directly to the business operations.  The problem that was addressed was analyzing the warehouse operations and how the donation of food flows into Second Harvest and what is most in demand.  After the introduction, students, faculty, and IT professionals were broken into five different groups with each group addressing a different aspect of warehouse operations. Teams looked at orders for dry goods, refriegerated, freezer, and also the flow of product within the warehouse and from vendors.  Each group had different skills and were able to partner to see how to use different applications and programming languages like Python, Tableau, Power BI, R, and Excel.  

Once groups were formulated, they were able to ask Frank Ellmo and David Tinsley (Director of IT for Second Harvest) questions about the processes and the data.  Fortunately for the teams, both individuals were in attendance for most of the event which made answering questions quite efficient.  After teams settled in, lunch was provided by Axial Healthcare.  Alex Antonison, a Research Data Scientist from Axial Healthcare was in attendance for the event and provided assistance to the groups and was able to offer the students the help that they needed to get started.  

According to Brian Kirk:

Diving into data that is both real world and in support of such a worthy non-profit has been very rewarding.  Second Harvest facilitated such a wonderful learning experience by providing access to their data and having to deal with such messy data was a great experience in witnessing the reality of managing data.

The teams then worked throuigh the day to offer insight into several areas within the Second Harvest warehouse.  Teams then picked back up on Saturday morning and worked until 12 Noon.  At that time they presented their findings.  Groups were able to show how they merged datasets and offered insights into the movement within the facility as well as demand.  But, the true final product was the process that the students went through to learn how to analyze data.


The best part of the event was seeing students with no experience working next to faculty and other IT professionals.  The process, not the product, was the point of the event and the opportunity to dive into data where your insights can be used for meaningful change is empowering.  Working with organizations like Second Harvest is a win-win for MTSU and a wonderful non-profit.  We can see that students want to do things to learn, and why not do things that are for the good. 

- Dr. Charles Apigian, Interim Director of the Data Science Institute


Overall, there were 50 students, 8 faculty members, and 8 IT professionals, as well as 1 amazing non-profit.  This opportunity to data dive for a company gives anyone an opportunity to work with data, regardless of skill.  Stay tuned for more opportunities, maybe even having a Data Dive in Nashville where more individuals from the Nashville community can be part of a project.