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A Slam Dunk for Data Science and Social Good

By Rob Mitchum // September 4, 2013

Data is raw material that can be sculpted into many useful forms: for scientific discoveries, for business decisions, or for recommendations on entertainment and relationships. But in their presentations for the inaugural Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship Data Slam, fellows presented twelve examples of data used for its most noble purpose: to make the world a better place.

In its first summer, the fellowship brought 40 undergraduate and graduate students from around the U.S. as well as Italy, Mexico and Israel to Chicago to work on data-based projects with nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Organized by Rayid Ghani of the Computation Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy and funded through a personal gift from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, the program struck a nerve in both tech and academic circles, attracting over 550 applicationsin just two weeks.

At the August 20th Data Slam, held downtown at the Gleacher Center, fellows gave three-minute pitches to 160 guests about the fruits of their summer labor, including tools developed for the Chicago Transit Authority, the Cook County Land Bank and the new Chicago bike-share program, Divvy. In his introduction, Ghani described the purpose of the program, which was inspired by his work as chief scientist for the 2012 Obama for America campaign.

“The goal was to train and encourage more people who not only have the right skills but also care about making a social impact,” said Ghani. “It’s really important, for us as a society, to focus the best people on the problems that matter the most.”

The teams addressed problems in areas ranging from education and health care to transportation and disaster relief, applying computer science, statistics and programming skills to data from partner organizations.

CTA Web App Sample.png
A prototype dashboard for the tool created by the CTA team (Brandon Willard, Walter Dempsey, Andrés Akle Carranza, Jordan Bates, David Sekora)

One team tackled the educational issue of “under-matching,” the missed potential when under-privileged, qualified high school students fail to enroll in high-caliber colleges. Working with Mesa Public Schools and other school districts, fellows Edward Su, Nihar Shah and Min Xu used data on grades, attendance, discipline, test scores and more to identify kids at high risk of under-matching.

“This way we hope that we can find those students and intervene, preventing them from selling themselves short, and redirecting them towards brighter futures,” said Su, a graduate student studying physics at MIT.

Another project, with fellows Joe Walsh, Adam Fishman and Emily Rowe and mentor Nick Mader, an economist at Chapin Hall, worked with Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a national program that arranges home visits for impoverished first-time mothers through pregnancy and their child’s early years. Using analytic methods from the field of economics on data collected by the NFP for nearly 20 years, the DSSG fellows hope to create a new way for the program to accurately and inexpensively evaluate its effectiveness now and in the future.

data-slam2.jpgCloser to home, fellows worked with data from the City of Chicago to evaluate and improve city services such as trash collection and streetlight outages, while another team created a tool to help Divvy anticipate when its bike stands will become overcrowded or empty. Another project built a model for the Cook County Land Bank to suggest abandoned propertiesto purchase and redevelop that will make the greatest positive impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

With renewed funding from Eric Schmidt, the fellowship will soon begin recruiting 2014’s fellows, mentors and project partners. But as the inaugural class spreads back out around the world, Ghani hopes they will found a new community of people working with data to make a positive social impact.

“They took a chance as much as we did,” Ghani said. “The fellows wanted to do something more – they felt like it was important for them to do something that actually had an impact, rather than optimizing clicks and selling more ads.”

You can view a slideshow of photos of the Data Slam and read media coverage of the event from WBEZBuiltInChicago and DNAInfo.

Photos by Jason Smith

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