Data Science Center Hosts Prospective Partners for ‘Common Good’

The Center for Data Science in the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) hosted about 65 representatives from companies, nonprofits and government agencies on Monday, Oct. 21 for a celebration of the accomplishments of 2019 Data Science for the Common Good (DS4CG) program and to launch the 2020 program. The effort matches computer science graduate students with local nonprofits to apply data science skills to a mission-driven project over the course of a summer term.  

One goal of the event was to engage prospective partner organizations in future projects as mentors, sponsors or partners, says Brant Cheikes, the center’s executive director. Among the guests were representatives of Great Barrington-based Synqware, automated controversy detection service AuCoDe, student services company Pay4Eduation, Inc., Nashville-based Change Healthcare, western Massachusetts-based PeoplesBank and MassMutual of Springfield.

Cheikes says that while computing systems and data science have gotten a negative reputation lately for things like facial recognition, hidden cameras and apps collecting and sharing our data, CICS students and faculty want to use their powers to do good. “Data Science for the Common Good is an experiential learning program that teaches data science students how to apply their skills and knowledge on a common-good problem,” he explains.

Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone spoke at the event, citing goal #2 in the UMass strategic plan: “Establish UMass Amherst as a partner of choice in advancing and applying knowledge and innovation for the betterment of society. There is no better example of this than Data Science for the Common Good.”

Nonprofits and government agencies represented at the event included the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, The Nature Conservancy, Springfield Public Schools, Town of Amherst, City of Northampton, Community Legal Aid, Collaborative for Educational Services, Mass Audubon, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Greater Holyoke YMCA, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Massachusetts Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

DS4CG assigns fellows to work on a nonprofit’s big data problem with pay from UMass Amherst for their work, while supervised by campus faculty and industry mentors. The fellows provide weekly status updates, present a final report, and transfer deliverables at the end of the term. Students who took part in the 12-week summer DS4CG program as fellows this past summer gave “Lightning Talks,” short presentations about their projects now completed.

For example, DS4CG interns worked with The Nature Conservancy staff in Massachusetts to enlist the power of data science to address its concern with motor vehicle collisions with wildlife. Mentored by CICS professors, CICS graduate students used machine learning to help analyze images captured from motion-triggered wildlife cameras placed in forests and along trails to help the ecologists design mitigation strategies for animal-vehicle collisions. Another DS4CG project last season involved a CICS student working on a team using data science to help the Springfield Public Schools analyze student information in combination with college enrollment data from a national clearing house to explore why some students succeed in college while others don’t, for example, and what can be done early to identify and help those at risk for dropping out.