Voices of Pro Bono Data Science: Friederike Schuur
October 22, 2014

For the second year in a row, DataKind is joining Taproot Foundation to celebrate Pro Bono Week 2014, a global celebration of the pro bono ethic across all professions that use their talents to make a difference. This is the second post in a four-part blog series highlighting voices of pro bono data science where we asked our volunteers and partner organizations to answer the question: "Why do you think pro bono data science can change the world?"

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I hold a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and, after volunteering with DataKind during my postdoc at NYU, I got really excited about data science. I then became an Insight Data Science Fellow and am now a full time data scientist at Oscar, a health insurance start up.

Why do you think pro bono data science can change the world?

When you think of pro bono work, doctors, lawyers, and educators may come to mind. But data scientists? Maybe not. Well, there is a lot data science can do for the greater social good. It can help nonprofits decide how to spend their budget more wisely thereby increasing impact. It can help citizens understand public data, from consumer complains to climate change, giving us the material necessary for informed decision making. Great!

So, why do we not think of data scientists as great volunteers equipped with the skills that can change the world? For one, volunteer work may not be part of the data science culture (just yet). A public forum for pro bono data science work may help, highlighting its existence and importance. More importantly, pro bono data science is very different from the amazing pro bono work that doctors, lawyers, and educators do. They work with individuals or small groups of people: doctors fighting malaria, educators teaching children how to read. Data scientists work with data. In fact, they may never even meet the individuals impacted by their work.

As a volunteer for DataKind, I analyzed education data on a DataCorps project with DonorsChoose. Books like Llama Llama and The Bully Goat were among the books most frequently ordered for pre-schoolers by their teachers. What does this tell us about the challenges that teachers face in classrooms across the US? A lot.

Simple insights like these, distilled from large collections of numbers, may prompt decision makers across the country to consider policy changes (one hopes). Our little ones may learn the social skills they need to get along with each other and, eventually, the world at large. Good data science has the potential to affect many people. Let’s add data science to the professions that come to mind when thinking of pro bono work!

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