Parsing Big Data to Increase Blood Donations

Posted On April 24, 2017 by Jenifer Shockley

Students in Robinson’s M.S. in Analytics and MBA programs are helping the American Red Cross understand blood donor behavior.


M.S. in Analytics students present their findings to the American Red Cross.

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Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood or blood products, such as red blood cells, plasma, or platelets. That’s a lot of blood — every drop of which is collected from millions of volunteer donors each year.

The need for blood is constant, as is the need for repeat donors. But what differentiates one-time donors from those who return time and again? What behaviors identify those who will roll up their sleeves repeatedly for years to come?

This question brought the American Red Cross to Robinson’s Institute for Insight last summer. The Red Cross, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply, had tens of millions of donor records and a need to identify potential repeat donors. The Institute for Insight had the computing power, data scientists and student teams to figure it out — starting in fall 2016 with students in Robinson’s Master of Science in Analytics (M.S.A.) program, followed by MBA students who are working with the Red Cross data this spring. Professor Martin Grace and Assistant Professor Yichen Cheng, both of the Institute for Insight, worked with the M.S.A. and MBA students on the year-long project.

The American Red Cross joins the growing list of companies and organizations, such as SunTrust Banks, Starr Companies and Georgia-Pacific, to partner with the Institute for Insight to harness the power of data and analytics.

Learning the business of blood

Since opening its doors in 2015, most Institute for Insight projects have been for corporate, for-profit institutions in sectors such as financial services, healthcare, hospitality, insurance and manufacturing. Working with the Red Cross was a different matter entirely.

“This is not the normal business problem we look at,” said Institute for Insight director, Sanjay Srivastava. “We’ve studied problems for other companies that are more familiar to us in that we understand the domain.”

Robinson and the Red Cross worked closely together throughout the fall semester to ensure M.S.A. students and institute faculty learned the business of blood, starting with a launch presentation introducing them to the organization’s Biomedical Services division, followed by weekly phone calls, a visit to the American Red Cross of Metropolitan Atlanta of the American Red Cross and a trip to the Red Cross Blood Processing Center, located in Douglasville for proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Robinson even hosted a blood drive at GSU’s Buckhead Center.

“The students learned all they could about the Red Cross,” said donor marketing director Jenny Lamping.

Diving into the data

The M.S.A. students cleaned and analyzed approximately 45 million donor records from 1980-2016, covering the Red Cross’s 44-state donation footprint.

Subsequently, they broke into four teams to examine regional differences in donor behavior, identify salient characteristics of repeat donors, determine the impact of deferrals and investigate whether donation sites influence return visits. At the end of the semester, the students presented their findings orally, in a report and a video.

After the presentation, Darren Irby, executive director of marketing for the American Red Cross Biomedical Services, said he was struck by “how the students characterized the data in unique ways we had never thought of before, which hopefully will allow us to serve more people, get more donors and save more lives.”

Lamping concurred. “We’re so close to the data and tend to see things the same way, day after day. The students have looked at things differently than we would have, which has yielded some interesting opportunities for us to explore that I don’t know we would have discovered on our own.”

Understanding analytics in the C-suite

In 2015, Robinson redesigned its part-time MBA in anticipation of the skills required to lead the 21st century enterprise, including ensuring future leaders possess data-driven analytical skills. This included adding a new course, Analytics Experience (MBA 8045/PMBA 8045), in which students work on real data problems and apply analytical techniques to find solutions. In spring 2017, students in both the Flexible MBA and Professional MBA programs are working with the data developed by M.S.A. students in fall 2016.

“The purpose of the class is to help MBA students learn how analytics work, so they’ll know the whole procedure of going from a raw state of data to concrete information and potentially discovering marketing strategies or insights,” said Yichen Cheng, who is teaching the Flexible MBA Analytics Experience section. “Instead of simply being informed about a conclusion reached from data, they will be able to understand how the conclusion was obtained, and if those in management understand analytics, they can do a better job of asking for insights.”

Like the M.S.A. students, MBA students in the Analytics Experience course are broken down into teams who are examining specific attributes of the data, such as health status, socioeconomic conditions and regional donation density, to develop marketing plans and other potential action items.

A mutually beneficial partnership

“An eight-word vision statement drives everything we do, ‘No one gets closer to business than Robinson,’ and our partnership with the American Red Cross embodies that vision,” said Sanjay Srivastava. “The American Red Cross gained insights to help the organization deliver on its mission to help provide lifesaving blood and platelet donations to patients in need. Our M.S.A. and MBA students gained knowledge and skills from working to solve a real business problem.”

Learn more

American Red Cross Biomedical Services 

Master of Science in Analytics 

MBA programs 

Special thanks

Neal Litvak, chief marketing officer at the American Red Cross, sponsored the project on behalf of the organization.

Members of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Red Cross attended the kickoff and final presentations, and helped coordinate visits to the Atlanta Metro headquarters and Douglasville Blood Processing Facility.

Ginger Baxter (M.S.-M.R.M. ’15), forged the Robinson-Red Cross relationship when she was associate director of integrated graduate student services overseeing the M.S.A. program. Baxter, a steering committee member of the American Red Cross Tiffany Circle, has ties to the organization stretching back several generations. Her great-grandmother founded the Red Cross chapter in Tuscaloosa, Ala.