Data Science for Social Good is organized around projects, fixed-length efforts designed to produce a practical solution or product at the end of the summer. For many academics, used to open-ended research that typically makes it mark incrementally or over the long term, this more focused approach can be a jarring shift. But many DSSG fellows are already experienced in the design — and more importantly, execution — of projects, even at a young age. Sometimes very young.
Elissa Redmiles was only five years old when she was inspired to start a non-profit organization. After seeing a news report about needy families, she told her parents she wanted to send disadvantaged babies the essentials, as conceived by a five-year-old: stuffed animals, books, and blankets. The idea inspired the Baby Blanket Project, which collected donations from individuals and, eventually, major corporations to send a gift-wrapped package to struggling mothers and their infants.
The early start in social good created a tension in Redmiles as she pursued an education in computer science.
“What I did with the Baby Blanket Project was very direct; I could see the impact and see I was helping and making someone smile,” Redmiles said. “In academia, when I was solving a problem, it usually had nothing to do with people, and if it did it would have to do with them 50 years from now and a million miles down the road. I was always searching to recreate that feeling that I can really make a tangible impact, not just a potential one.”
To that end, many of Redmiles’ academic projects have focused on the personal side of technology and research, whether studying the human factors of taxi share services, designing an app for safe sex practices, or teaching at a summer computer science day camp for lower-income students.
After college, Redmiles helped launch the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, and created a computer science Curriculum-in-a-Box for middle and high school students, with an emphasis on non-traditional tech projects that may pull in groups underrepresented in the field.
“I tried to focus on things that research shows women are more interested in, including community good types of things,” Redmiles said. “So any time you can show that computer science can do something other than build a robot, it’s perfect.”
As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Esha Maharishi also made time to mentor young future scientists, spearheading new physics and engineering activities for a Women in Science and Engineering program and volunteering at a science festival for elementary students. Like many women studying in a technical field, Maharishi felt it was important to support and encourage girls in a traditionally male-dominated environment.
Her efforts in education were just a fraction of the projects the 22-year-old Maharishi constructed during the pursuit of her degree. Frustrated with the often illogical recommendations of a GPS device during her college visits, she started PeopleMaps, a route recommendation app that uses crowdsourced wisdom from locals about the best directions, instead of an aloof algorithm. Maharishi also developed an application to help campus groups conduct more efficient elections and voting, in an attempt to improve upon the old-fashioned method of counting votes by hand.
“I’ve always been really frustrated, like a lot of people who do computer science or deal with numbers, with inefficiency,” Maharishi said. “Any time I see something happening in student groups or life that is poorly done and wasting everyone’s time, some people laugh, but I see it as an opportunity for a real solution.”
Having just graduated last week, and starting a engineer position with MongoDB in the fall, Maharishi hopes her summer with DSSG will give her the skills and inspiration to pursue more social good projects outside of academia and industry.
“I think it will expose me and connect me to a lot of people who have a similar mindset in terms of the end goal of what we’re doing,” Maharishi said. “There’s obviously money-oriented goals, but that’s a very difficult end goal to work for, it’s just a number. I’m really hoping that these projects will help the community and help connect me to people who have the ability to solve larger problems than the kinds of things I was doing on my campus. Regardless of how I move forward, I want to be part of that group of people.”