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Hacking for Social Good

Thanks to improvements in our ability to process data, more entrepreneurs and students are taking an interest in the field of data science, where technical expertise, mathematical knowledge and good old-fashioned hacking come together to solve practical problems in a wide range of applications.

At Georgia Tech, students are learning how to apply data science principles to civic challenges through a newly created Data Science for Social Good summer internship. Sixteen students recently completed the inaugural program, which culminated with a demo day at the Atlanta Tech Village in July.

“Many students today are very civic-minded, and they want their work to have not just real impact in terms of making money and building a product or company, but also have some kind of ‘change the world’ application,” says Raj Bandyopadhyay, chief data scientist for Pindrop Security and founder of the Data Science ATL Meetup. “A lot of times, students in technical fields like computer science don’t always see that opportunity to have that kind of impact on nonprofits or social problems.”

Following a similar format piloted by the University of Chicago for its own Data Science for Social Good fellowship, DSSG-Atlanta interns formed five teams and paired up with community partners to research, design and build practical solutions to problems faced by their host organizations. Aside from borrowing some of DSSG-Chicago’s branding, the Atlanta internship is independently run and funded.

This year’s interns worked with five partner organizations: the Atlanta Police Department, Truly Living Well, Atlanta Community Court, Cycle Atlanta and Georgia Tech. Students embedded with their host organizations, interviewed employees and processed huge amounts of data in order to develop their solutions.

Bandyopadhyay, who pitched the idea to Georgia Tech after being inspired by what he saw at the DSSG-Chicago demo day, says it was an irresistible opportunity for students and administrators alike.

“What appealed to them was the combination of the program having a social impact and being an educational opportunity,” he said. “Secondly, Georgia Tech is also interested in building a data science program, and this was a good way for showing what kind of skills existed in the community.”

Bandyopadhyay partnered with Dr. Ellen Zegura, a professor in Georgia Tech’s computer science department, to organize the inaugural program. After acquiring funding from both Georgia Tech and later Oracle Academy, the inaugural DSSG-Atlanta internship began to take shape over the course of early 2014. The organizing committee received 80 applications before selecting a final cohort of 16 students to come to Atlanta for the summer.

“We tried to look for students who not only had shown enormous technical skills on their resumes, but who had also worked on projects that showed an ability to work with people, clients and problems that were slightly more realistic than a class project or technical research project,” he explained.

Bandyopadhyay made no secret about the fact that this year’s internship program was only the first step. The completed projects have since been documented and uploaded to GitHub, where he hopes other developers will continue the work that the interns started. Code for Atlanta, a collective of volunteer hackers, has also expressed an interest in taking on some projects. And, of course, Bandyopadhyay and Zegura are already preparing for next year’s program.

“We want to use these successes to grow this program in a major way. That would need more funding of course from sponsors, which would allow us to have more students and more teams, but also connecting with more organizations that are data-savvy and have interesting, realistic problems to solve.”

Photo supplied by the author



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