This was the question asked of us by Paul O’Connor last Friday, at the first of our weekly lunch speaker series. O’Connor is an urban strategist at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who formerly headed a business development nonprofit called World Business Chicago. On top of that, he’s a native Chicagoan as well as a local history buff, all of which uniquely qualify him to ask us to reflect on the city’s history before we try to change it.
If it’s the first time you’ve heard of DSSG, it’s a summer “get stuff done” fellowship that aims to do a lot of things: train a group of 36 new data scientists from diverse backgrounds; apply their skills to solve real problems in the public sector; and looking forward, pioneer the way for future programs to apply data science to the public sector.
As I drove into Chicago on June 1, I was on the lookout for an official welcome sign.
The underwhelming response (see above) foreshadowed the message we got from O’Connor, which was basically, “Chicago has been here trying to sort out its own issues for years. Who are you, and what are you looking for?”
Let me elaborate: many of us are new to Chicago, and a fair portion are also new to the types of problems the city faces. To be fair, the idea that a bunch of upstart computer science and math students could drop in and save the city in 12 weeks never really crossed my mind. We aren’t the first people to approach the complex social issues here. O’Connor told us the story of how Chicago’s aldermen, city officials and community organizations have seen the city through economic booms and busts, ethnic segregation, gang warfare and numerous other urban crises.
But simple humility and a passively open mind isn’t what’s going to help us actually make a difference in our respective projects.
If we do want to make an impact, it’s our responsibility to go beyond “I won’t be naive about our potential” and instead ask, “What are all the things I need to understand about the problems here if I want to contribute something practical and socially valued?” In other words, we must become deeply aware of the realities of these issues, or we will have failed.
These thoughts were a reflective capstone to what was otherwise a week spent in the weeds of technical boot camp. We were lucky to have volunteer instructors affiliated with Software Carpentry join us for two days to cover a host of technical topics from Git project management to the basics of R, Python and high-performance computing. All of this was to help begin to address the “Swiss cheese” nature of our diverse technical backgrounds.
In my opinion, our broad and sparse collective knowledge base is both our greatest strength and weakness. We each have our own personal game of technical catch-up to play in order to collaborate well. At the same time, any muttered utterance of “how do I…?” has so far been nosily observed and eagerly answered by the handful of experts in earshot.
It is truly a brilliant and instructive group. Everyone has something to offer, and everyone has something to learn. The DSSG staff are quick to put emergent knowledge to quick use rather than to dampen our talents and willingness to share: “Oh, wait – you actually know a lot about this! Come teach everyone else.”
Did I mention that we’re having fun, too?
We are after all a lively group fully capable of lingering in the office for hours debating controversial social issues such as discrimination, socioeconomic disparity and sexism, and then buddy up the next day for happy hour at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Who am I? One eager and idealistic cog in a truly unprecedented meeting of minds. What am I looking for? To offer everything I can to help it succeed.
Skyler Whorton is a Data Science for Social Good fellow from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. This post originally ran at Whorton’s blog, skyinthecloud.