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Faculty profile - Jacob Dearmon

For Oklahoma City University business professor Jacob Dearmon, data analytics is all about identifying problems that are difficult to solve and coming up with a data-driven solution.

Sometimes, you might not think data analytics could play a role in solving the problem. Take, for instance, the issue of homelessness.

Though the project is still in its early stages, Dearmon is working with the Legal Aid Society of Oklahoma using data analytics to contribute to the mission of reducing homelessness. He uses a script written by an executive in Tulsa enabling the retrieval of Oklahoma Supreme Court Network docket data to track eviction case counts and rates for Oklahoma County – the idea being that if the city can reduce evictions, it can reduce homelessness. He is working toward a deeper dive into the link between eviction cases, legal representation and homelessness.

“It’s an incredible rush to realize a unique solution to a difficult problem,” Dearmon said. “It’s a rare blend of creativity and rigor that makes it so satisfying.”

Homelessness is just one of the issues Dearmon is using his data analytics skills to tackle.

His most recent academic work used close to 10 years’ worth of Oklahoma County Assessor’s Office databases to generate parcel-level estimates for individual homes and tools to construct concepts such as spatial spillover and spatial infill. His article on the topic, “A Hierarchical Approach to Scalable Gaussian Process Regression,” was published in the Journal of Spatial Econometrics.

Publishing this type of research wasn’t always in Dearmon’s plans.

He earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, but soon realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do for the long haul, he said. He knew he wanted to use his mathematical background and experience in some way, and he was becoming more and more interested in the sociology of how people interact. He found economics to be a comfortable blend of those two things and decided to go back to school to get his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma. From there he shifted his research into machine learning and applying that to real-world, complex situations.

Now, in addition to teaching economics in the Meinders School of Business, Dearmon serves as the director of the school’s Ronnie K. Irani Center for Data Analytics. He’s quick to credit the center’s namesake, OCU alumnus Ronnie Irani, and the school’s namesake, Herman Meinders, for enabling the university to hit its stride in data analytics. Meanwhile, Dearmon’s work reaches outside of academia, as well. He started his own analytics consulting company, Dearmon Analytics LLC, in 2015.

“Linear regression models are the quintessential hammer in the toolbox of a data scientist,” Dearmon said. “However, we often encounter real-world situations where we need different types of tools, like a power drill – machine-learning algorithms are those types of tools.”

So what is data analytics? Dearmon describes what he does as looking at a set of attributes and trying to relate them to specific outcomes. Data is often used to visualize relationships and trends, and then to estimate relationships. He gives the example of housing attributes and subsequent costs. Each house has its own set of attributes: square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, how old the house is, etc., and each of those attributes contributes to the total price of the house.

The application of data and analytics that businesses are typically the most interested in is forecasting, which is generating predictions about the future based on the historical data. When forecasting data, it’s assumed that the historical process is similar to the future one, but things like pandemics, technological advances and policy change can make the future look very different from the past, Dearmon said. He applies this knowledge and insight in forecasting work for clients like the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. In the banking sector, he has helped with stress-testing exercises at MidFirst since 2017.

“The holy grail of business analytics is to provide recommendations and really get at what the business should do,” Dearmon said. “There are a lot of opportunities to support organizations in driving their mission in a data-driven way.”

Dearmon brings his data analytics expertise across industries and companies to his role as a teacher and faculty advisor. In the past two years, he has been the faculty advisor for two different undergraduate teams that compete in the national analytics competition BAC@MC in New York City. Both teams placed first in the competition, beating out more than 30 teams from universities across the country, including Washington University in St. Louis, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Notre Dame.

“I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with such great clients and students,” Dearmon said. “It’s never just about the data scientist, but the collaboration between data scientists and the domain experts.”

Dearmon notes that every person brings a unique and important perspective to every problem, and says the best results are often achieved by taking what people have learned through their own experiences and using that knowledge to solve the problem.

According to Dearmon, the future of analytics looks bright at OCU.

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