Perscio and Purdue Team Wins IBM Challenge Grand Prize

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Perscio, an Indianapolis based data consulting firm, and Purdue University entered the global IBM Big Data for Social Good challenge and won the grand prize. The submission was a Flu Map which pulled from multiple sources to predict where the flu will spread next.

Sometimes in technology it’s easy to get away from what really matters. This project was really exciting in that I was able to use my programming and math skills to create something which will really help people.

Last November IBM and Hadoop announced their Big Data for Social Good Challenge. They invited developers to consider using big data sets and IBMs Bluemix to do something good for society. The challenge invitation says “data speaks volumes about our collective behavior and society – so let’s use it to do something incredible!”

With that directive, it drew a variety of individuals and organizations, particularly those that wanted to work with large data sets, conduct analytics, and had a commitment to making the world a better place through such work. Perscio, a local data strategy company, decided to enter the challenge. Their team, which included 4 graduate students from Purdue, was named the Grand Prize winners of the challenge on April 15th.

When the challenge was published, Perscio formed a partnership with a team of students from Purdue’s D.A.T.A. Lab to work on the project with them. CEO Bob Boehnlein explained that Perscio “wanted both the professional acumen and the enthusiastic brainpower a challenge like this required.” The seven person team consisted of a software engineer, data scientist and front end developer from Perscio, and 4 Purdue graduate students with various technical skills and an interest in the project.

The collaboration between Purdue and the Perscio team was a huge success. Not only did the team win the challenge, but they all appreciated the benefits of consolidating their public and private skills and resources to work together. Professor John Springer was the faculty liaison from Purdue’s D.A.T.A. Lab, and lauded the opportunity for the partnership, "Working with Perscio was a great opportunity for our students to partner with people outside of the University. It reinforces the notion that, with Big Data, they are not going to do their work in a silo. As they work as part of a team, they will leverage what others bring to the table to achieve their goals.” And Wei-Liang Kao, Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer and Information Technology, said, “Big data projects function best with a cross-functional team. Different types of expertise truly bring valuable insights to the project.”

The team’s submission “Watch Flu Spread” (, works with Influenza data. Since as many as 20% of Americans are affected by the Flu each year, they believed that finding a way to track the spread of the virus and provide real time information about its likely path of spreading would be invaluable to the public.

Perscio’s CIO Brian Norris, MBA, RN-BC, FHIMSS shed light on the value of the app for the healthcare industry:
“It is critically important to know more about what is going on within a population and predict potential areas of impact…By giving even just a 5 day heads up on what might happen we can put a significant dent in this human and fiscal toll. The same approach can be applied to other high cost chronic diseases such as COPD, Asthma and Diabetes”.

The app uses a simple model of flu spread based on analyses, paired with a regression algorithm which learns over time. After the analyses were conducted, the team designed interactive visualizations to communicate the results of the computations. Using IBMs Node red tool and sentiment analysis to analyze tweets, the Indianapolis based team created a Flu Map as a public service that can help prevent the spread of flu by providing advanced disease prediction.

The team regarded the challenge as an opportunity to hone their tech skills while doing something good for the world. Alec McGail (Perscio software engineer and Purdue graduate) commented on his experience working on the challenge, “Sometimes in technology it’s easy to get away from what really matters. This project was really exciting in that I was able to use my programming and math skills to create something which will really help people.”

While the Perscio and Purdue team were the overall winners of the challenge, there were several impressive submissions. All of the teams who participated developed apps that demonstrated social good that can be done with big data. Perscio will be donating the $20,000 grand prize to Purdue’s Department of Computer and Information Technology.
You can learn more about Perscio at

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Chris Hoyt
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