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Mwalimu Phiri, part of a three-member team from University of Maryland University College (UMUC), stood before a panel of judges in Shanghai, China, discussing the impact of air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa. The presentation focused on how traditional cooking and heating fuels compromise the health of 3 billion people every year, disproportionately children under age 5.

The “Effects of Household Air Pollution” project may have focused on big data, but it was a photo of a young child building a wood fire in Zambia that captured the audience’s attention at the May 29 presentation.

It was a photo of Phiri.

As if to underscore just how personal the subject matter was, teammate Justice Amoah continued the story by noting that he could easily have been among the African children who die as a consequence of pollution-related respiratory ailments. Amoah grew up in a community in Ghana where women, their children strapped to their backs, cooked over fires stoked by wood or other highly-polluting fuels.

“Three billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people live in conditions like this that put them at risk,” Amoah said. “Some children survive, some do not. I was one of the children who survived.”

That dramatic presentation earned UMUC the top spot in the rigorous Watson Analytics Global Competition, an annual face-off that showcases innovative big-data projects executed on IBM’s Watson Analytics platform.

“It’s an environmental story but it’s a human story and it’s a global story,” said Sarah Eggum, the third member of the winning team. She, too, had a personal connection to the subject:  Her husband runs a nonprofit with a strong focus on the well-being of children in Africa.

“The audience was absorbed,” Elena Gortcheva, chair of UMUC’s Master of Science in Data Analytics program, said of the winning team’s presentation. The honor came little more than two weeks after Phiri and Eggum received master’s degrees in data analytics from UMUC. Amoah is mid-way through the degree program.

While impressive, first place wasn’t the sole honor for UMUC, the only online university in the competition. A UMUC team also claimed third place in the competition. Erin Krizay, Mike Lesosa Kiwa and Tiffany Bennett had put together a presentation titled “Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States: Trends, Impacts & Predictions.”

“To get first place and third place is almost unbelievable,” said Gortcheva, the teams’ mentor.

The No. 2 spot went to Canada’s Dalhousie University, a public research university in Nova Scotia.

Bennett could not make the trip to China because her 5-year-old son was scheduled for surgery at the same time, so Krizay and Lesosa Kiwa made the presentation alone, but they credited the former energy data analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy for the idea behind their project. They said Bennett had encouraged them to see a documentary film about natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it is commonly known.

Phiri, a financial systems analyst at University of Maryland Faculty Physicians in Baltimore, enrolled in UMUC’s data analytics program “because I wanted to improve upon my skill sets.” He has a B.S. in financial economics from University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Amoah, who has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and works on Medicaid health insurance issues for DXC Technology in Arkansas, said he has long been attracted to the idea of working with unstructured data.

Eggum, meanwhile, is a former elementary school teacher who enrolled in the data analytics program after her husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer “and I knew I couldn’t support a family on a teacher’s salary.”

“The happy news is that my husband is … doing great and the degree has really given me wings,” said Eggum, who lives in Oklahoma. “I began without any technical skills—I don’t even think I was on Facebook—and here I am programming and performing data analytics.”

The three team members met face-to-face for the first time in China the day before their presentation, but they had already forged a close connection working online and over the phone.

“We had a natural chemistry and shared a passion for the project,” said Eggum. “We became such close friends that we call ourselves ‘Two Brothers and a Sister.’ I think our passion was obvious during the presentation.”

Bennett and Lesosa Kiwa also received their graduate degrees in data analytics in May. Krizay is slated to receive hers in December.

Bennett, who has an undergraduate degree in environmental policy and economics from Oregon State University, plans to seek a position as a junior data scientist in the fall after her youngest child begins kindergarten. Krizay also entered the program to open new career opportunities. She served in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps and currently does data analysis at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For Lesosa Kiwa, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the data analytics degree follows undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry. He works in information technology at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a multinational biotechnology company.

IBM’s Watson Analytics competition is presented as an add-on to the annual International Big Data and Analytics Educational Conference, which focuses on building, deploying and managing the curriculum in data-analytics education. In 2019, Gortcheva will chair the conference.