Since its inception in 2015, the Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) program at the University of Washington has convened interdisciplinary teams of students, stakeholders, data scientists, and researchers for an immersive 10-week program in Seattle, WA.
Historically, the program has leveraged data to engage with topics as diverse as intergenerational poverty, voting rights, and food safety. This broad societal lens has continued through the 2023 projects with eight Student Fellows across two teams exploring groundwater insecurities in the Colorado River Basin and heating pump efficiency analysis in Alaska.
The eScience Institute, which designs and hosts the DSSG program at UW, recently spoke with the 2023 Student Fellows and asked them about their motivations for applying to DSSG and their experiences at the program midpoint.
Exploring Social Good
“I do data science for my PhD research and it’s in natural language processing,” said Maia Powell, a PhD Candidate in Applied Mathematics at the University of California, Merced. “I study the Black Lives Matter movement and I’d like to get a job where I am doing data science and contributing to social good. I’m going to graduate in a year, but I haven’t participated in a tangible project applying that knowledge. So that was my motivation [to be involved].”
Exploring the intersection of technology and social good was a primary motivating factor for Yuanning Huang, a Master’s Student in the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. “I think there are many avenues to exploring this intersection, with this program being one of them. I want to explore it to see if I’m interested in doing it for a career.”
Katherine Grisanzio, a Doctoral Student in Psychology at Harvard University, commented further on this theme, stating, “I was interested in data science methods and techniques and have been doing some of that in my grad program, which is really exciting to me. Separately, I had done nonprofit and volunteer work but hadn’t had an opportunity to connect them before. I think that was one of the biggest reasons I was interested in doing the program. To apply those methods to a cause.”
A Collaborative Space
From the 6th floor of the Physics/Astronomy Tower, the WRF Data Science Studio where eScience is located is a collaborative hub set at the southwestern edge of the main UW campus. An open-plan office with views of the Seattle skyline and nearby water features provides the setting for deep engagement and collaboration during the 10-week program.
Under the day-to-day guidance of program mentors and researchers from the eScience Institute, Student Fellows move between breakout rooms and seminar spaces set around the periphery of the studio to develop and refine their program goals. Within this environment, the program encourages an interplay between structured input from academic staff, stakeholder considerations, and project-based learning.
“I think it’s a well-structured program. They have a specific and deliberate process for picking projects and finding the right balance between something that is well-formed and allowing us to take the lead on it,” said Brian Leung, a Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Washington, about his time in the program. “Thinking through ethical issues as well as stakeholder engagement is a critical part of these types of projects and often not as deliberately considered in other spaces. That’s a really good thing.”
Kimberly Kreiss, a Master’s Student in Public Affairs at Princeton University, provided more context on the DSSG approach to stakeholder engagement, stating, “We were able to do a lot of the technical work with the data, but lacked knowledge of the context of groundwater and water management in the region.”
Kreiss went on to explain that through a structured process of identifying and engaging with knowledge experts during the 10-week program, teams acquire this understanding and integrate it into their project approach.
“We were fortunate to get stakeholder meetings with very senior policy experts at think tanks like The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund. [This process helped] identify people who could give us a lot of policy and political context, and the historical and legal background that we really wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
A common touchpoint expressed by many of the fellows centered around the opportunity to work in a collaborative process with students and faculty outside their core academic disciplines.
Aanchal Setia, a Doctoral Student in Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said, “I come from a social psychology background, and this is the first time I’m collaborating with a team comprising people from different disciplines. It’s been a fantastic learning experience, seeing how each team member views and tackles various challenges in our project through their unique lens. These diverse perspectives have really helped us approach our work in a more comprehensive and innovative way.”
“Vaughn, who’s our data science lead, has been really helpful in a lot of ways. He’s done DSSG for I think eight or nine years, so he’s really experienced and has a good sense of timing for projects, how to structure them, and when to consider taking things in a certain direction,” said Kreiss. “He helped us structure stakeholder meetings to maximize impact and gather the most feedback from who we are presenting to.”
Speaking about the support structures built into the DSSG program, Aminat Adefolu, a Doctoral Student with the College of Science and Engineering at Central Michigan University, said, “There are always people around to help you with challenges. You just need to ask.”
The DSSG program, by design, engages with complex and multi-factored societal challenges. Given this context, participants expressed a grounded approach to what can meaningfully be achieved during the summer and contextualizing what ‘social good’ means within their programs.
“[When considering] our project on a surface level, you could be like, ‘oh, heat pumps will be fixed,’ when really the analysis needs to be more complex. It’s more about doing less social bad and examining our assumptions to make sure our work has the proper nuance,” said Silas Gifford, a Master’s Student at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley.
The application of this approach was articulated further by Leung, stating, “We came into the program with a certain expectation of ‘Oh, it’s going to be a data project. We’re going to get our hands on some data and run algorithms all day.’ But it turns out to be a much more collaborative process. We have to initiate ideas, speak about strategy, and consider how we want to intervene in the issue with data. It was less data-focused and more qualitatively nuanced and motivated. ‘Do you know the context? Do you know the stakeholders? How do you want to intervene in the ecosystem?’”
Fellows were asked towards the end of the interview process about hopes for their programs beyond the summer. Expanding on the themes above, the fellows expressed an understanding of their work existing in a continuum, with a desire for program outcomes to assist future research and provide access to tools for community organizations.
The program is also an opportunity to engage with collaborators beyond a singular academic discipline. The new insights and outcomes from the 10-week programs not only further knowledge and understanding of broader societal challenges but also bring personal growth.
“It’s not just data science,” said Gifford, “You’re learning many transferable skills, you’re learning interdisciplinary skills, and you’re learning new ways to think.”
Join us on Wednesday, August 16th from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. for the final project presentations when both 2023 teams will share their findings from the 10-week DSSG program, and any next steps for implementing this research in the future.