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Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Summer of Data Hacking Social Problems

The idea, Rayid Ghani recalled, grew out of his experience speaking to computer science students at elite schools like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the University of Chicago. President Obama had just won his re-election bid last fall. And Mr. Ghani, chief scientist for the campaign, was on a kind of explanatory victory tour, describing how cutting-edge data analysis and computing tools gave its side an edge.

For Mr. Ghani, the Obama campaign demonstrated how those tools could be used to influence people in fields beyond the well-known commercial ones, like search, social networks and online advertising. And beyond politics, he would tell the students, were a host of social challenges in health care, education and urban development where their skills could be put to good use, working with nonprofits, civic groups and local governments.

The students, Mr. Ghani said, seemed mostly unaware of the opportunity for such social applications. “So much of the computing agenda today is motivated by the problems that the big Internet companies face,” he observed. “But if all these kids are doing that, they are not working on the things that really matter.”

So Mr. Ghani created the Data Science for Social Good fellowship program at the University of Chicago, which began in June, and gives aspiring young data scientists a chance to tackle real-world social problems. The program owes its existence to a private pool of wealth created by an Internet giant. It is financed by the Schmidt Family Foundation, an educational charity led by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and his wife, Wendy.

In March, Mr. Ghani joined the University of Chicago, where he is a research scientist at both the Harris School of Public Policy and the Computation Institute. That month, he made a trip to Silicon Valley and visited Mr. Schmidt, whom he had worked with on the Obama campaign. Mr. Ghani described his idea for a summer fellowship program. Impressed, Mr. Schmidt urged Mr. Ghani to move quickly and do it for this summer.

In an e-mail, Mr. Schmidt explained that he spent a lot of time in Chicago for the Obama campaign, and he grew fond of the city and admired the University of Chicago. “This is a small way to help that might have a bigger impact than we think,” he wrote.

Urban social problems are a fresh challenge for sophisticated data tools. Regardless of what the students eventually do, the summer, Mr. Schmidt wrote, will be a valuable experience. “Almost all the interesting jobs will be related to Big Data in the future.”

Mr. Ghani is hoping to encourage students along a path taken in his own career. He spent a decade as a research scientist at Accenture, helping retailers and others design predictive models of consumer behavior. For much of that time, he recalled, “The intellectual, algorithmic challenges were exciting and I didn’t care much about the applications.”

But while at Accenture, Mr. Ghani spent his spare time volunteering for social programs, like tutoring children from poorer neighborhoods. Joining the Obama campaign, he said, was a step toward work that combined what he was good at and what he cared about.

Mr, Ghani said he wanted to work on complex urban and social problems at the university. The 36 summer fellows â€" winnowed from 550 applicants â€" are putting their minds to such challenges. They come from schools across the country, and a few from abroad.

For example, Skyler Whorton, 24, holds a master’s degree in computer science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is working with a small team that is helping the Cook County Land Bank come up with a Netflix-style recommendation engine to identify the most promising properties for redevelopment, mostly in blighted neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

Emily Rowe, 26, has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, with a background in statistics and econometrics. Her project is to develop quantitative tools for measuring the national effectiveness of the Nurse-Family Partnership, a community health program that is now in 42 states. The partnership sends nurses to assist low-income pregnant women with their first child, from prenatal care until the child is two years old.

After the summer program, Ms. Rowe will be looking for a job in data science, probably for a research organization or a private company. She said she planned to do volunteer work and perhaps work for a nonprofit later.

In the fall, Mr. Whorton will join Wayfair.com, an online retailer specializing in furniture and home furnishings. But Mr. Whorton said he planned to join “open data” meetups in the Boston area, where volunteer programmers develop Web or smartphone applications, using public data, to improve city services.

“Social problems are an area that is under-served by computer science,” Mr. Whorton said.