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Data Science For Social Good Makes Case, Expands Circle

By Rob Mitchum // October 13, 2016

Like most buzzwords, the hype around “data science” often far outpaces the actual results. But each year since 2013, the Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship has provided ample proof of how data and the right analytic techniques can drive powerful, positive change in the world. The capstone of each summer is the Data Fest, where the program presents projects addressing problems in education, public health, policy, conservation, international development, social services, policing, and a broad range of other societal issues.

The 2016 Data Fest provided a dozen more vivid examples of this potential, alongside a broader picture from White House chief data scientist DJ Patil about how data science is reshaping government. From sanitation in Kenya to social services in Mexico, from water mains in Syracuse to emergency medical services in Cincinnati, and from policing in Charlotte and Nashville to schools in Tulsa and Ohio, the twelve speakers made concise arguments for the power of data science.

The solutions developed over 14 weeks included data analytics for predicting students at risk of not graduating on time, or police officers at higher risk of an adverse incident with the public. Other teams connected data from hospitals, mental health facilities and jails to identify individuals suffering from complex conditions, or between schools and the criminal justice system to find interventions that prevent juvenile crime. They helped a state agency prioritize their hazardous waste inspections, helped the Mexican government respond to citizen petitions and locate families in need of social services, and helped an effort to bring cleaner sanitation to Kenya optimize their waste collection operations.

The talks prompted Patil to tell DSSG Director Rayid Ghani in a “fireside chat” that “when we say the term data scientist, you embody what we say the term is about.” Patil explained that government is just starting to realize how data can help them make real change and improve lives, and that demand is growing exponentially for people who can apply data to policy.

“Every secretary at the federal level wants one of you,” Patil told the fellows. “Actually, wants all of you.”

You can watch videos of all twelve talks and DSSG Director Rayid Ghani’s introduction in the playlist below:

For the first time this year, the DSSG Data Fest was surrounded by a two-day conference that invited fellows and partners from this summer and previous years to join more people working at the intersection of data and social good in cities, non-profits, and universities. Sessions included primers on starting effective data science initiatives, scoping partners and projects, and assessing one’s own organizational readiness for getting the most out of data. Day 2 featured panels and discussion groups on the unique challenges and data-driven solutions for cities, the ethics of data science for social good projects, and the meaning of “social good” in this unique context.

A playlist of videos from the 2016 Data Science for Social Good conference is below, and you can access slides from many of the sessions at the conference page.

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