Empowering Students Through Big Data

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  • Published: April 28, 2016
The team behind CMU-Q’s ‘Q-SmartLab’ explains how the platform has grown from a teaching tool to a limitless digital laboratory
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In today’s increasingly connected world, the promise of innovation has reshaped the world of education. Where students may have once merely attended lectures and passively absorbed information, technological ingenuity has fundamentally altered the relationship between educators and students, empowering the latter.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), a partner university of Qatar Foundation (QF), the launch of its Qatar Security Market Analytics Research and Teaching Laboratory (Q-SmartLab), has brought with it a platform for CMU-Q students of all disciplines to process, interpret, and reshape real-time information from the global financial markets.

The first ‘smart lab’ of its kind in the Arabian Gulf, the Q-SmartLab contains a large interactive visual dashboard that allows users to sort information and analyze trends in financial markets on both a macro and micro scale. The interface organizes and analyzes information using visual data, business analytics, and computer science techniques.

Q-SmartLab is the brainchild of John O’Brien, Associate Dean, CMU-Q, and Fuad Farooqi, Assistant Teaching Professor, CMU-Q, who later enlisted the expertise of Zeeshan Hanif, a research assistant and Computer Science graduate from CMU-Q.

“The concept behind Q-SmartLab evolved from a research project on conventional and Islamic financial institutions in Doha and the Arabian Gulf region,” explained O’Brien. “We realized that we were sitting on massive amounts of data, and that we needed some sort of mechanism to deliver it to the students and faculty using a formal platform.”

Farooqi continued: “The data was primarily being utilized by me and John, and a few students of finance courses. We thought we should open things up and that the best way to formally structure that would be through a lab or entity that would attract others. Everything was set up in the fall term of last year, beginning August 2015, when we were formally given a room to begin the lab.”

Hanif, who graduated from CMU-Q in May 2015, functions as the lab manager of the team. He told The Foundation that initial conversations with O’Brien and Farooqi revolved around how he could help visualize the data.

“I could tell that this lab could benefit students in multiple ways,” he said.

“I wish this platform had been available to me when I was a student at CMU-Q. Students relate to this. You can stand in front of them and lecture all you want, but as soon as you bring students to the Q-SmartLab and show them real-time data, you see a big difference in their responsiveness.”

Demonstrating potential
The inter-disciplinary collaboration between O’Brien, Farooqi, and Hanif was initially intended to be a teaching tool for students to connect theory with real-world practice. Students of a capstone course on financial markets at CMU-Q were tasked to evaluate the companies listed on the Qatar Stock Exchange and formulate recommendations to optimize their ‘smart beta’ portfolio. Yet before the course had even began, the Q-SmartLab was attracting attention from industry.

In October 2015, the Q-SmartLab was presented to the World Federation of Exchanges 55th General Assembly and Annual Meeting, hosted by the Qatar Stock Exchange, before being showcased at the Euromoney Qatar Conference six weeks later.

CMU-Q was also invited to attend the Civil Defense Exhibition and Conference in November 2015, where the team was able to demonstrate to conference attendees the real-time movement of a typhoon approaching the coast of Oman, and highlight the location of individual tankers in the Indian Ocean and the effect on regional markets.

Back at CMU-Q, students have learned to use the platform through practice rather than theory. At CMU-Q’s inaugural Q-SmartLab event, the recently held Algorithmic Trading Hackathon, students representing the Business Administration, Information Systems (IS) and Computer Science programs (CS), competed against one another over three trials which corresponded to three live trading days at the New York Stock Exchange. The top two teams won a trip to New York City to visit the financial district and observe the day-to-day operations of the markets.

“The Trading Hackathon was a primary example of how the Q-SmartLab is making an impact across all CMU-Q disciplines,” said Farooqi. “It’s quite telling that the top three teams at the event had team members that represented all disciplines: CS, Business Administration, and IS. Typically, such events are popular with computer science and information systems students, but the Q-SmartLab Algorithmic Trading Hackathon added a business and finance angle.”

Proof of concept
Hanif agrees that the Trading Hackathon was the perfect proof of concept for how the innovation holds the interests of many CMU-Q students, and perhaps holds potential across fellow QF partner universities.
“Outside of being a teaching resource, the Trading Hackathon exposed students to new concepts,” he stated. “If I was a student now, I would have reached for the opportunity to learn more about algorithmic trading during my coursework, to add that to my skill set.

“I hope that moving forward, we can have other schools within Education City to explore areas of collaboration. There is so much that we can add by bringing fellow QF partner universities into the fold.”

In the words of O’Brien, the platform is “evolving in ways that we didn’t anticipate” and the team plans to expand the Trading Hackathon to become a cross-university, annual event. What began as a teaching tool for a single CMU-Q course could soon become a platform for leaders of industry and for the benefit of students across the country.