Business challenge

Recognising the key role that data plays in today’s world, the University of Derby wanted to encourage more students to develop analytics skills. How could it help them get over the learning curve?


Access to cognitive analytics has helped IT undergraduates work independently and extract useful insights from data. The university is now rolling out these tools to 22,000 UK-based students.



in-demand analytical skills to a wider range of students than ever before


students to work independently and find solutions to real-world problems


students for post-university life in employment or further study

Business challenge story

Keeping a finger on the pulse

Six months after completing their degrees, 96.9 percent of University of Derby graduates are either employed or engaged in further study. To maintain this impressive performance, the University continually invests in keeping its courses industry-relevant, encouraging students to develop practical skills that will put them in a strong position to embark on a successful post-university life.

Richard Self, Senior Lecturer in Analytics and Governance within the College of Engineering and Technology at the University of Derby, says: “We want our students to become the most employable graduates in the market, which means equipping them with the capabilities that are most in demand. As analytics skills become increasingly essential across a range of industries, we wanted to encourage more students to gain competences in this area.”


To achieve this goal, the University of Derby wanted to remove one of the biggest barriers to entry for students who want to analyse data: the complexity of the analytics tools themselves. To increase adoption, it wanted to find a solution that students could use without specialist knowledge or prior experience, and that could help them gain insight into data rapidly.

“Our ethos is that students learn best by doing, rather than simply observing,” comments Richard Self. “However, traditional analytics tools make it difficult to get started: students need training and expertise, not only to start using the tools but also to interpret the output. Interesting correlations are often buried in less important results, and it takes experience to identify them and learn where to look closer. To truly democratise analytics, we needed a radically different approach.”

Giving our students access to IBM Analytics solutions enables them to quickly pick up marketable skills, setting them up for success.

Richard Self, Senior Lecturer in Analytics and Governance within the College of Engineering and Technology, University of Derby

Transformation story

Tackling real-world challenges

The University of Derby found the answer in cognitive analytics, driven by IBM solutions. Richard Self remarks: “IBM® Watson™ Analytics really caught our attention—we saw its potential to bring smart data discovery capabilities to our students. We also realised that we could combine Watson Analytics with IBM Bluemix® to unlock a whole range of additional cloud-based data and analytics services.”

As a first step, the University made the solutions available to final-year IT undergraduate students taking the “Emerging IT product development” module.

“By selecting a cloud-based analytics solution, we made it possible to offer access to students both at our Derby campuses and at our partner college in Dhaka, Bangladesh,” says Richard Self. “We challenged the students to choose a large data-set that they thought was interesting, and come up with a project to analyse it. We gave them the option of using either Watson Analytics or a more traditional statistics package—whatever they felt gave them the tools they needed to get the best results.”

Luke McDonnell, one of the students who participated in the project, elaborates: “I chose to analyse data from the London Ambulance Service, made freely available by the Greater London Authority. Using the tools to investigate how monthly ambulance service incidents are distributed across London boroughs, I aimed to provide useful insights for people deciding where to live in the city.

“I decided to run comparative analyses using both of the tools Richard suggested. For me, Watson Analytics ticked the most boxes, and I think this would be true for both casual and professional users. It allowed me to upload my data and simply ‘plug and play’, without hours of preparatory work to clean up the data-set, and without writing a single line of code. As a result, it took much less time and effort than the other statistics package.”

Using the built-in cognitive capabilities of IBM Watson Analytics, the students were able to extract insights from their data-sets rapidly. Whenever a new data-set is uploaded, the solution automatically searches for potentially interesting correlations, and suggests them to the user as possible avenues for research. This helps to short-cut much of the exploratory phase of data analysis, and sometimes even highlights relationships or suggests hypotheses that the user might not have considered.”

Georgia Vicars, another participating student, says: “I chose to use IBM Watson Analytics to investigate the link between crime and the location of every lamp post in Derby, looking for a relationship between street lighting and public safety. After obtaining lamp-post location data from Derby City Council and approximated crime location data provided by UK Police forces, I was able to use Watson Analytics to analyse the recurrence of crimes that happened on poorly lit streets. The results that Watson Analytics provided did indicate that streets on the outskirts of Derby's city centre that had little or no streetlights experienced higher crime rates. In addition to this, Watson Analytics' Predict feature was able to identify that incidents of burglaries, violence, sexual offences and theft occurred more when there were fewer streetlights, insights that could be useful for city planners and the police.”

Richard Self adds: “One of the students at our partner institutions in Bangladesh, Mainul Kabir Aion, analysed data-sets from Twitter feeds and mobile phone companies to recommend the best mobile phone handsets for a telecom start-up to offer its customers to maximise sales. Using the development environment within IBM Bluemix, he then built a web app that the start-up’s customers could use to select the device that most suits their needs. These are just a few examples of the way intuitive IBM tools are helping our students turn big data into insights that could have practical value in the real world.”

Watson Analytics allowed me to simply ‘plug and play’, without hours of preparatory work to clean up the data-set, and without writing a single line of code.

Luke McDonnell, final-year undergraduate student, Information Technology BSc, University of Derby

Results story

Democratising analytics

Following the success of this project, the University of Derby has decided to extend access to IBM Watson Analytics to other groups of students, with the ultimate aim of rolling it out to its entire UK student body.

“IBM Watson Analytics could be the ideal entry point for students across a whole range of courses, because its learning curve is much less intimidating, even for non-statisticians,” says Richard Self. “You can upload structured data into Watson Analytics and it will provide near-instant insights. Rather than overwhelming users with a stack of results to hunt through, the solution lets you skip ahead and take a deeper dive into the really interesting data.”

Luke McDonnell adds: “One of the biggest challenges students face when starting out with analytics is producing effective and appealing visualisations. IBM Watson Analytics creates the visualisations for you automatically, letting you spend more time on the actual research and less on drawing charts and diagrams.”

By equipping its students with the analytical skills that today’s businesses and academic institutions value, the University of Derby helps them prepare for life after university.

Gandolfo “Randy” Messina, World Wide Academic Leader for Watson Analytics at IBM says: “This project confirms the University of Derby as one of the world’s most forward-thinking academic institutions, and we’re proud that the IBM Academic Initiative is making it possible. The goal is to prepare students now, so that when they do graduate they'll have a distinct competitive advantage over other job applicants and be well-versed in what industry is demanding today.”

Richard Self concludes: “Across industries and post-graduate courses, analytics plays a critical role. Giving our students access to IBM Analytics solutions enables them to pick up marketable skills that will appeal to employers and further education providers alike, setting them up for success in the future. By helping them explore and analyse very complex data-sets, the IBM tools are helping our students go beyond lectures and theory, and address practical questions that are relevant in everyday life.”


University of Derby

The University of Derby offers 22,000 UK-based students full-time, part-time and online learning opportunities across numerous colleges: arts; business; education; engineering and technology; health and social care; law, humanities and social sciences; and life and natural sciences. Employing over 3,000 people, the university is rated within the top 10 in the UK for teaching quality.

Solution Components

  • Cognos Analytics

Take the next step

See for videos of presentations by Luke McDonnell and others critically evaluating their IBM Analytics and Bluemix projects. To learn more about IBM Watson Analytics, please visit IBM Analytics offers one of the world's deepest and broadest analytics platform, domain and industry solutions that deliver new value to businesses, governments and individuals. For more information about how IBM Analytics helps to transform industries and professions with data, visit Follow us on Twitter at @IBMAnalytics, on our blog at and join the conversation #IBMAnalytics.

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