Rob Mitchum

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.”

The fellowship statistics presented by Ghani demonstrated the demand for such a program. In only a few weeks of open enrollment, the fellowship attracted 550 applications from around the world. 100 graduate and undergraduate students were interviewed by the fellowship team including Ghani, Matt Gee, Juan-Pablo Velez, and Michelangelo D’Agostino, and 36 were selected to come to Chicago for the summer. What Ghani expected to be an easy process of pruning down the applicants turned out to be “very painful…but fun and interesting.”

In the first four weeks, the fellows received a whirlwind of training in various software, programming languages and statistical techniques, but also in how to work with government agencies and non-profit organizations to identify the problem and brainstorm solutions that use both data and real-world insight. Ghani said he and the other organizers designed the fellowship to reflect the unique challenges faced when working with less tech-savvy partners.

“It’s not about sitting in the corner looking at data. It’s about working with people, understanding their problems and helping them solve their problems,” Ghani said. “Data is just the thing in the middle. You need to understand the problem you’re solving and what the bottlenecks are. Data happens to be something we know how to analyze and we can use that skill to help these organizations make better decisions.”

Just as selecting the right students was important for the first year of fellowship, so too was there a rigorous process for finding the right project partners.

Ghani shared the fellowship’s criteria for partners: they had to have a real problem with social impact, they needed to share data useful for solving that problem, the partner had to interact with the fellows over the course of the summer, and they had to commit to using the fruits of the project beyond the original delivery. Those qualifications turned out to be very selective – from an initial pool of 40 partners, only a dozen were chosen for the fellows to work with this summer.

Though the projects are just gaining traction in the first four weeks of the fellowship, Ghani described the goals of some of the partnerships with partners such as CTA, Nurse Family Partnership, Ushahidi and Mesa Public Schools.

Fellows are developing a tool that predicts the impact of bus service changes, finding new ways of measuring the effectiveness of a nurse home visit program, creating an automated process for finding important information in tweets during natural disasters and political unrest, and helping identify high school kids that are at risk of not graduating or not applying to college.

While all this extra legwork might not be as easy or as glamorous as joining up with one of the slick start-ups on display at Techweek, the benefits of working directly with organizations concerned with social good outweigh the hurdles, Ghani said.

“It’s much easier to go to Google and optimize ad clicks, because everything is set up for you,” Ghani said. “It’s much, much harder to go to non-profits and say, ‘I want to help you make better use of your data,’ because the first response to that is ‘Huh? What data are you talking about?’ So it’s much, much harder but much more rewarding, because you help people who wouldn’t be able to do these things without you.”