How data science makes filing taxes better, in offices and online

July 19, 2018 : Lisa Patterson

This past year, more than 23 million taxpayers sat down with more than 80,000 tax professionals in H&R Block offices or headed to hrblock.com for online tax filing solutions. For them, the face of H&R Block is the tax professional or a website. But behind the scenes there are other people in jobs helping clients. Those jobs range from user experience designers, product developers and marketers to data scientists. Data science has been a growing trend since 2012 but what it is, let alone how it can help taxpayers prepare their returns, isn’t as well known. Two members of the corporate analytics team at H&R Block provided an inside look at what they do and how they help H&R Block clients.

Leading a team of data scientists with a willingness to try new things

David Longstreet has a history of trying new things as an adult and succeeding. For example, two years ago when asked to compete in the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, Longstreet researched and found little competition in the long jump, so even though he never was a track athlete, he entered. The exposure to track fueled a competitive streak in Longstreet who continued his training after the corporate challenge events concluded. This spring he competed in the Masters Track and Field Championship in Durham, North Carolina, placing third in the long jump, fourth in the 100 and 200-meter dash and his relay team placed first in the 4×100 meter relay.

When Longstreet isn’t building new skills outside the office, he leads a team of data scientists to improve the client experience. He and his team look from different angles to the same question to spot patterns and behaviors in the data and that leads to answers. The diverse team often looks at topics differently. There’s a hobby baker who measures success by how fast goodies disappear from the plate, plus a member with an internal audit and finance background who has a passion for pattern recognition.

Impacting client experience

At H&R Block, the data science team uses the knowledge and experience of H&R Block’s 80,000 tax professionals to improve the client’s experience with a single tax professional, increasing specificity during a tax interview. For example, a taxpayer who is a firefighter benefits from the information learned from analyzing data from all tax professionals who work with firefighters. Tax breaks unique to firefighters, such as deductions for personal protection gear, dry-cleaning dress uniforms and union dues are explored in more detail. The tax professional, often an expert in deductible business expenses, is presented a detailed list of deductions most frequently claimed by firefighters.

In the DIY products, a client would experience that data scientist thumbprint when a query box defaults to “yes.” When the current client’s responses match the large quantity of data from other clients who usually check “yes” in the same situation, the product can suggest “yes” as the answer.

“The best projects are when we can use those data points to help drive innovation in H&R Block’s products,” said Longstreet.

Meet a team member

Josh Ellington, a data scientist at H&R Block, has taken an indirect route on his career path. Holding a degree in psychology, which he selected based on his interest in studying human behavior, he has worked on client support teams and had frontline contact with taxpayers. He says he likes challenging teams to take risks and follow the direction of the data.

Data analysis at H&R Block is a study of aggregate data. Ellington sums up it up, “I like to say that I don’t care what one person does. I want to know what 10,000 people do.” The data team isn’t interested in outliers or individuals but rather large quantities of data showing trends and patterns.

Data scientists continue to dig into the data at H&R Block and their findings will continue to impact the experiences of taxpayers working with tax professionals or DIY products. Those interested in impacting the experience of H&R Block clients from behind the scenes should visit the H&R Block career page to learn about corporate positions. Those interested in impacting the client experience at the tax desk should visit the H&R Block career page to learn about tax office positions.

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Lisa Patterson

Lisa Patterson

Contributor and Producer

Lisa Patterson has been a member of the H&R Block newsroom since 2012. She supports efforts to educate consumers and members of the media about taxes and company happenings. Before helping tax professionals talk taxes with the media, Patterson was a consultant for small companies running social media efforts, blogs, events and product marketing. She spent more than 10 years in local government managing communications for city operations, fire and the city manager. Patterson holds two degrees from University of Kansas: a Bachelor's in Business with an emphasis in marketing and a Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications.

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