Archive for the ‘Data Science for Social Good’ Category

blight3As the Data Science for Social Good fellowship enters its final month, many of the projects with nonprofit organizations and government agencies are picking up momentum. At the DSSG website, we’re posting regular updates on the fellows’ progress: how they determined the right problem to solve, what analytic and software tools they’re using to attack those problems, and what they have learned along the way. Some of the articles even offer a glimpse at early results and prototypes developed by the team over the first two months. Here’s a sampling of those progress reports.

Cook County Land Bank: The Problem

The Cook County Land Bank Authority was recently established earlier this year as a new government agency charged with acquiring and redeveloping vacant and abandoned properties. DSSG fellows are working with The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University to developed a tool — a sort of “Trulia for abandoned properties” — that will help the agency determine which properties to purchase in order to produce the greatest benefit for the surrounding community.

The Cook County land bank wants to play the midwife, proactively targetingindividual properties that have redevelopment potential and could help stabilize local areas.

But there are tens of thousands of boarded up homes and overgrown lots in Cook County, and the land bank’s budget is limited. How will the agency figure out which of these properties to acquire, and what to do with them?

Where can it actually step in and be effective, investing in properties that would not otherwise have been redeveloped, instead of soon-to-be-sold or unsellable ones?


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China’s Milky Way 2 supercomputer was recently declared the fastest supercomputer in the world by industry scorekeeper Top500, the latest move in the increasingly international race for high performance computing supremacy. Late last month, CI Senior Fellow Rick Stevens appeared on Science Friday, alongside Top 500 editor Horst Simon, to talk about why that competition matters, and what the global push for faster computation will do for medicine, engineering and other sciences.

“These top supercomputers are like time machines,” Stevens said. “They give us access to a capability that won’t be broadly available for five to ten years. So whoever has the time machine is able to do experiments, able to see into the future deeper and more clearly than those that don’t have such machines.”

The same time machine metaphor was also picked up by the University of Chicago’s profile of Mira, our local Top500 competitor, which was bumped down to #5 by the Milky Way 2’s top ranking. But there’s no shame in fifth-best, when fifth-best can run 10 quadrillion calculations per second — the equivalent computing power of 58 million iPads. CI Senior Fellow Gregory Voth is quoted about how access to such a world-class resource helps both today and tomorrow’s scientists.

“Having access to a computing resource like Mira provides excellent opportunities and experience for educating up-and-coming young scientists as it forces them to think about how to properly utilize such a grand resource very early in their careers,” Voth says. “This gives them a unique perspective on how to solve challenging scientific problems and puts them in an excellent position to utilize computing hardware being imagined now for tomorrow.”


The Data Science for Social Good fellowship has reached the halfway point, and the website is starting to fill up with interesting content about the projects. Some fellows have already produced tools for the community to use, such as Paul Meinshausen’s interactive tree map of the City of Chicago’s Data Portal. Instead of a cold, no-frills list of the datasets available for download by the public, Meinshausen’ s map uses color and shape to guide users quickly to the data they are seeking and make rapid comparisons about the size of the dataset. The visualization was popular enough that programmers in Boston and San Francisco quickly applied his code to their own city’s data portals, while another built a common map for every city that uses Socrata software to share its data.


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[This post was co-published at the Data Science for Social Good blog]

Last week’s Techweek Chicago event had all the trappings of your typical tech conference. Sprawled out over a floor of the city’s massive Merchandise Mart was a maze of exhibitor booths luring attendees to learn about their new dating service or augmented reality app with tchotchkes and loud music. Three stages offered a full slate of talks and panels about the future of the internet, smartphones and video games, tips for making content go viral and pageant-style battles of aspiring startups. Against this noisy backdrop of buzzwords and brands, the public announcement of the Data Science for Social Good fellowship struck a different note.

Serendipitously following a passionate argument by Jeff Lawson of Twilio for the power of software to change the world, fellowship director Rayid Ghani offered an overview of how the Data Science for Social Good program was designed to fulfill that promise. Inspired by Ghani’s work as chief data scientist with the Obama for America campaign, the vision of the fellowship was to take some of the creative and technical firepower on display at these types of tech gatherings and apply those talents in a new, socially beneficial direction.

“We thought it was really important for people with skills in data and technology to do something useful for a change,” Ghani said. “A lot of work on putting ads in sidebars and optimizing click-throughs or moving money around…there’s nothing wrong with those things, except there’s an opportunity cost. If you’re doing those things, you’re not doing something useful. So we decided it’s time for people who really have the skills to do useful things to really have them do those things.”


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As the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good fellowship enters 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.


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The Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship is officially underway, as (most of) the 36 fellows have made it to Chicago, met their mentors and explored their new digs on the Chicago River. Juan-Pablo Velez captured the excitement of the first day over at the fellowship’s blog, where there will be plenty of updates all summer.

We spent our first day getting to know the program, and each other.

Program director Rayid Ghani kicked things off by welcoming mentors, staff, and fellows.

“Three months ago, we didn’t know we were doing this. Lots of people did a ton of work to get you here,” Ghani said. “But this is now your program – it’s up to you to make this work.”

“No pressure.”

Details of the projects our crew of data scientists will be tackling this summer will be announced later this week.

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In its early days, the Urban Center for Computation and Data formed a valuable partnership with the data team installed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel within Chicago’s city government. Leading the city’s efforts to free up data internally and externally was Chief Data and Information Officer Brett Goldstein, an alumnus of the UChicago computer science program and the restaurant reservation startup company OpenTable. Goldstein’s team and UrbanCCD worked together on the SmartData platform proposal that was chosen for a $1 million grant in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge earlier this year, and Goldstein was the keynote speaker at the first workshop of the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Workshop in February.

So we are very excited about the news that Goldstein will soon be joining the University of Chicago as the inaugural Fellow in Urban Science at the Harris School of Public Policy. Goldstein will continue to work with UrbanCCD researchers on the SmartData platform and other projects, while also helping with the launch of a masters degree in computation and public policy and the Urban Technology Innovators’ Conference, a new initiative organized by Chicago Harris and the City of Chicago that seeks to create a peer-learning network for municipal technology innovators.

“Chicago Harris demonstrates a commitment to rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship, with strong partnerships with the Department of Computer Science and the Computation Institute, and a desire to advance the field of data science, especially so it can be leveraged it for public service,” Goldstein said. “I am excited about the opportunity to continue working to meld urban science and data analytics and work with this impressive community of faculty and staff.”

You can read more coverage of Goldstein’s move and career so far at Crain’s Chicago Business and Government Technology.


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applicant-mapWhile you’re planning for a summer vacation on the beach, we’re planning to host three dozen aspiring data scientists for The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship. In just a couple weeks, 550 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world applied for the program, as visualized above. While the lucky 6.5% don’t arrive until early next month, the fellowship’s website launched today with portraits and Twitter/GitHub links for all the fellows, mentors and staff involved in this exciting effort. There’s also a debut post on the DSSG blog by organizers Rayid Ghani, Matt Gee and Juan-Pablo Velez, that nicely lays out the grand motivation for organizing this first-of-its-kind program.

By analyzing data from police reports to website clicks to sensor signals, governments are starting to spot problems in real-time and design programs for maximum impact. More nonprofits are measuring whether or not they’re helping people, and experimenting to find interventions that work.

None of this is inevitable, however.

We’re just realizing the potential of using data for social impact. We face hurdles to the widespread adoption of analytics in this space:

  • Most governments and nonprofits simply don’t know what’s possible yet.
  • There are too few data scientists out there – and too many spending their days optimizing ads instead of bettering lives.

To make an impact, we need to show social good organizations the power of data by doing high-impact analytics projects. And we need to expose data scientists to the problems that really matter.

That’s exactly why we’re doing the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship at the University of Chicago.

We want to bring three dozen aspiring data scientists to Chicago, and have them work on data science projects with social impact.

Be sure to browse through the fellows and watch the website for frequent updates as the fellowship gets to work this summer. For more on the concept of training data scientists to apply their talents to making the world a better place, read Chicago Magazine’s in-depth interview with Rayid Ghani, posted yesterday.

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