- Jane Zanzig & Matt Gee

Learning data science can provide youth with some of the most powerful tools of change available. Data scientists have the power to find injustice and mistreatment in police records. They have the power to predict and prevent a child from getting lead poisoning. They even have the power to influence Presidential elections.

The job of a data scientist — a person who can make sense of big data by combining the tools of computer science, machine learning, and statistics — was ranked as the #1 job in 2016 by Glassdoor; computer science is now the most popular major at many universities; and more and more jobs in every field are requiring computational literacy to get ahead. Meanwhile, the need to diversify and democratize this high-valued skillset is becoming increasingly apparent.

The Center for Data Science and Public Policy (DSaPP) at the University of Chicago has led the way in applying data science to public policy and social problems. We combine predictive analytics and machine learning with rigorous social science methods to build scalable systems that help solve significant social challenges. From identifying at-risk students to reducing hazardous waste violations, we work closely with government and nonprofit partners to create data-driven tools for improving public health, education, safety, and economic development.

Data science is as powerful as it is pervasive, but along with all the hype comes an unfortunate aura of mysticism and elitism. At DSaPP we all share a passion for improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making it accessible to all. Our team runs summer learn-a-thons and holds programming workshops for middle- and high-school students. With the advent of computational literacy, students who bear the brunt of our disparate school system are falling even further behind those with access to the latest and greatest classes. The bright side is this: anyone with access to a computer can learn these skills.

That is why the University of Chicago partnered with LRNG to create “The Big Deal” Playlist — to engage youth more critically with data about themselves, their communities, and the world; to empower them to be active creators rather than passive consumers of technology; and to encourage them to be active participants in government and policy. We believe that youth have the power to create opportunity for themselves and effect positive change in their communities — all they need are the tools to effect that change.

We wholeheartedly believe in the LRNG vision of learning as a lifestyle, as well as its philosophy that learning should be relevant and engaging. To us, this means that the technical skills should be presented as a means to an end. We wanted to first and foremost inspire students to understand their power to use technology for meaningful change, so we asked Jahmal Cole, a Chicago community activist, author, technophile, and founder of My Block My Hood My City, to speak in the cultural connector video. “If you want to turn your passion into your profession,” says Jahmal, “it’s time to Get Your Data On.”

To demonstrate how technology can make real change in real communities, we used Large Lots, an archetypal Chicago civic tech success story. In the opening video, Demond Drummer and Derek Eder explain how they used data to solve a very human problem, collecting $1 vacant lots on a user-friendly site and creating a new path to property ownership. The Large Lots project illustrates that “data science” doesn’t have to mean esoteric algorithms. At its heart, it’s about using data to solve human problems.

Next, students get to dig into real data, learning firsthand how to take a raw dataset and generate their own insights. They’ll play with interactive visualizations of crime in the city of Chicago, identifying patterns and surprising trends that arise. Working through these learning experiences, or XPs, students begin to question the biases that are present in any data. How was the data collected? What stories can be told? What is not included, and why? Using crime data keeps the subject matter tangible and salient, but the XPs are punctuated with levity, like a student-made rap video about pivot tables.

Once students are familiar with the civic tech landscape and have mastered the data tools, they get to flex their most important muscles as data scientists: curiosity and creativity. Using data from the White House Open Opportunities Dataset, they’ll propose a project to investigate a challenge in their community and make informed decisions. This project proposal unlocks the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship from members of a national network of data scientists and civic technologists called the National Data Science Organizers group. Youth will have the chance to have their work featured as part of the White House’s Opportunity Project as well compete for prize money in data science prediction and data visualization competitions hosted by Driven Data. Lastly, next summer, youth in participating cities will have the opportunity to connect with summer internship opportunities with sponsoring institutions.

We all know youth are tech-savvy and curious. They’re also highly engaged in their communities. They live the problems we talk about, and care deeply about changing them. The partnership between DSaPP and LRNG could fundamentally change the way youth engage with their cities, connecting technological literacy with community activism. The bridge we’re building is the access to these skills — access that is relevant and engaging, inclusive and inspiring. Join us!

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