Data Scientists: Solving for Good

August 12, 2015

It is fantastic to be a data scientist in today’s economy.  Exhibit A: Twitter keeps pushing an ad to me that claims ‘Jim’ (real name? I think not…)  was trained to be a data scientist in two months and immediately got a six-figure job.  That would seem a paradigm shift.  No wonder nonprofits and the government sector have been lagging in the adoption of technologies like machine learning -- the supply of talent cannot keep up with the increasing demand. 

With the private sector willing to pay top dollar, there is a considerable lack of public sector nerd power – and that has significant consequences. As a result, government services and nonprofits are not seeing the same gains in productivity as the private sector when it comes to advancing technology and innovation, Because they are not able to hire the talent. That is why the wait at the DMV for a driver’s license renewal will continue to be longer than the wait on a street corner for an app-hailed, ride-for-hire.  While consumer benefits have societal benefits, governments and nonprofits – whose main purpose is to serve society – are suffering from a skills imbalance that is only widening the gap between public and private sector efficiencies.

At Bloomberg, we are looking at ways to close that gap – and it is why we have created the Data for Social Good Exchange.  Partnering with great organizations like DataKind, we are imagining new ways to bring the private and public sectors together with academia to build or strengthen the ties among these groups so that together they can tackle societal challenges. This effort is part of a long Bloomberg tradition of bringing together data science and human capital to solve problems together. 

Last year, in partnership with KDD, we brought together over 900 scientists, thought leaders and policy makers in New York City for an exchange of insights, progress on applying machine learning and data science methods to problems in the public and non-profit sector.  The success of this event in bringing these communities together for a deeply engaging and enlightening event inspired us to continue the effort.    

 

Another way to close the gap is to encourage companies to facilitate employee volunteer service. At Bloomberg, this has been exemplified through our philanthropy & engagement program and work donewith nonprofit partners such as  Clean Ocean Action and the American Littoral Society, among others. In alignment with the Bloomberg Philanthropies environmental program and in response to a need identified by our nonprofit partners, Bloomberg volunteers, in addition to removing debris from our coastal areas through hands-on volunteer projects, are now also collecting and identify trends in the data on what volunteers have found on our local beaches and rivers. This collaboration uses a skills-based service approach to help our nonprofit partners clean up both the environment and their data, in an effort to quantify and understand the impact to the local community.

However, one of the unanswered questions for us is how exactly this work should be set up. For data science interventions to be successful, they need to be integrated within the organization. DataKind's work in connecting data science volunteers with organizations is one successful model of how this partnership can work. Another is Bayes Impact, which enables data science professionals to find meaningful long-term fellowships in the public sector.

At this year's Data for Good Exchange, we're also looking at another model. The UNICEF researcher-in-residence program allows an academic or industry professional to spend six months, or a year, embedded in UNICEF to help them plan a data science roadmap and strategy that will bring greater recognition to the unique problems children face worldwide. We hope the long-term engagement will enable both a deep conversation and knowledge exchange to become transformative for everyone. 

While we, as a society, get more clarity on how to be effective in our altruism, data science is one area in which practitioner skills are literally as good as gold.

Interested in the UNICEF researcher-in-residence program?

Apply!