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DSSG Update: Severe Brainstorm Warning

By Rob Mitchum // June 18, 2013

As the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good fellowshipenters its third week, the orientation ice-breakers of the first couple days have given way to the grind of hard work. Following the technically-oriented “boot camp” of the first week, where fellows got a crash course in the software and tools at their disposal this summer, the second week featured a different sort of educational experience. A steady stream of experts, on topics ranging from Chicago crime and public transit to energy infrastructure and early childhood interventions, visited the DSSG space to expose fellows to the gritty details of the real world problems they will address.

The purpose of these visits is for the fellows to learn about “the dark matter of public policy data,” the important information that won’t necessarily show up in the numbers that they’ll work with during their projects. Some of the speakers chose to give the fellows a little dose of humility, such as Paul O’Connor from architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who challenged them with the questions of “Who are you, and what are you looking for?” amid a history lesson on Chicago.

Speaking of the projects, the fellowship announced its first two partners this week as well: the Qatar Computing Research Institute and Usahidi. Fellows will help these organizations build tools for extracting useful information in real time from social media during natural disasters and other emergencies, to help emergency responders from governments and rescue organizations deploy their operations quickly and smartly. The projects aptly fit the description fellowship organizer Rayid Ghani gave for the types of projects they targeted for this inaugural summer: those that combine a rich dataset and a collaborative partner with an idea that will be both beneficial and practical.

“We wanted partners that could commit real resources, give us real data, and give us the commitment that they will use what fellows build at the end of the summer,” Ghani said. “There’s no impact if there’s no action.”

But even as those projects are just starting to take definite shape, the fellows are already producing exciting work. DSSG Fellow Paul Meinhausen created this Mondrian-esque zoomable tree map of the Chicago Data Portal, where the boxes are proportional to the size of the dataset within. Some where applying data science to socially relevant issues before even arriving in Chicago, such as fellow Andrea Fernández Conde, who mined information from news articles, blogs and YouTube videos to study the violence surrounding Mexico’s drug trade.

For frequent updates from the Data Science for Social Good fellowship, keep following their blog and Twitter account.

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