UNLV Researcher: The impact of using data for good

September 19, 2023

Dr Kasra Ghaharian, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' International Gaming Institute, provides perspectives and insights on academic-industry research.

My personal career trajectory in the gambling field has not been a straight line, but there has been one constant: data. As an academic scholar, now at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) International Gaming Institute (IGI), I have been involved in a number of academic-industry research projects, which have allowed me access to vast amounts of data.

I view these initiatives as extremely valuable to the progression of knowledge in our field. There are, of course, critics of this model who worry about the integrity of this research. I do not intend to argue for or against such initiatives; it will be quite clear from my past experiences and current endeavors that my commentary on that matter could be a little biased.

Instead, I’d like to share a little about my personal journey with research and gambling data before providing some key takeaways on academic-industry research... It’s 2009 and I just arrived back from the UNLV campus at my apartment complex after a full day of classes.

I pressed the number for my apartment floor, but quickly stopped the elevator doors from closing to let a fellow resident on board too. I noticed his name tag, 'VP of Marketing,' adjacent to a well-known casino company logo. I thought to myself: “Go ahead. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I’m a Master’s student at UNLV and would love the opportunity to talk to you about your role, as well as share some of the research I am doing." I’m glad I took the initiative because this chance encounter became a defining moment for my academic journey.

After receiving a business card, I followed up with a phone call the next day. This led to a meeting the following week, which led to the use of the casino’s slot machine data for my Master’s Thesis, which led to the first published work on using math to optimize the casino slot floor.

I was ecstatic, especially after hearing about the experiences of my fellow peers struggling to get data for their research. Most of these students would end up designing a survey to investigate some phenomenon and, if they were fortunate enough, get a few hundred responses.

I on the other hand had access to a mass of real-world objective data. With data from an actual casino and actual slot machines, the practical significance of my work was clear. This was the beginning of my passion for data analytics.

After working in the gaming industry for a number of years, I returned to UNLV for my PhD and, for my dissertation research, mined a trove of data made available via the IGI Payments Research Collaborative. The dataset contained over 90 million customer transaction records from a major gambling payments provider.

With my Master’s Thesis I employed advanced data analytics for commercial interests, but during my PhD dissertation I became passionate about using data for good. Specifically, I used a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) called unsupervised machine learning to find groups of customers who may be at-risk of gambling problems.

Once again, the real-world implications of my research were bolstered by the nature of the data; objective data from a real industry operator that reflected the actual behaviors of real people.

Now, as a Postdoctoral Researcher at IGI, I’m excited to be embarking on a new industry collaboration supported by Axes.ai. Axes.ai is committed to using its data for good and acknowledges the integral role independent scrutiny and research plays in this process.

Axes.ai Scholars at IGI will explore the use of novel AI and machine learning methods that have the potential to revolutionize harm prevention in land-based gambling environments. Academic-industry research has played a crucial role in my development as a researcher and data scientist.

These programs, when structured in a purposeful manner with ethics and integrity at the forefront, have the potential to provide great benefit to students, the academy, organizations and the field as a whole.

The ideal research process:

1) A data feed. There are hungry students ready, able and willing to devour data. They are eager to deliver high-quality insights by robust methods. They are highly motivated, given their imminent entry into the job market. They are also committed to methodological rigor, as a clear demonstration of the scientific method is a requirement for graduation.

Additionally, students will typically pursue novel research that has the potential to transform the status quo. All these factors – motivation to seek employment, robust research methodologies and innovative ideas – create an attractive proposition for industry stakeholders seeking to garner value from their data.

2) Crystal clarity. A chief concern regarding academic-industry research is that there is a chance of the benefactor influencing the research process. This is something that can be easily addressed through transparency; and is something we strove for with our Payments Research Collaborative.

To enforce transparency in our methods, we recorded our protocols on publicly accessible repositories before initiating any analyses. We published our findings in peer-reviewed academic journals and also made subsets of our data and code publicly available. To be clear (pun intended), we did not pioneer these practices; and we give credit to our peers and others in the gambling field who have demonstrated and promoted the practice of open science.

3) Measurable impact. Impact factor, H-index, number of citations, among others are metrics used to measure the 'influence' of research. These metrics are important in academic circles, but do little to indicate the wider reach and practical significance of research.

In medicine, for example, a piece of research highlighting the risks of a certain drug could be published in a high-impact academic journal, but it would be of little value if those findings did not reach those responsible for manufacturing the drug and/or administering the drug to the public.

The same holds true in gambling and academic-industry research can help bridge the gap in translating science to practice. And none of this happens without collaborations with stakeholders throughout the gambling world. If any of this piques your interest in the way it captured mine all those years ago – UNLV, IGI and I are only an email away.


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