Volunteer Spotlight: Dona Stewart

September 14, 2021

Meet Dona Stewart! Dona was the Data Ambassador in our first project with the Future of Land and Housing (FLH) Program at New America, one of our partners under our Economic Resilience Impact Practice

Dona led the team of volunteer data scientists analyzing evictions and mortgage foreclosures across the U.S. Through this project, we worked with FLH to create a national index to identify where in the U.S. housing loss is most acute. 

Local officials used this data to better target economic relief under the CARES Act and other resources to mitigate housing loss during the coronavirus pandemic. DataKind and FLH released a joint report, “Displaced in America: Mapping Housing Loss Across the United States,” in September 2020 and it’s received an enormous amount of attention across the country. 

Now a fellow with New America’s FLH program, Dona is collaborating with DataKind to build an eviction and foreclosure data tool for the public good.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I’m a former geography professor, researcher, and currently a technical project manager. I’ve had the opportunity to work with data in a wide array of domains, from academia to software development. As someone who learned to code after a career in project management, I really enjoy being the interface between stakeholders and customers with less technical backgrounds (often a customer) and the engineering team. I’ve also worked with some amazing people and learned a lot from them!

Can you briefly describe the project that you worked on?

The New America Future of Property Rights project was focused on measuring housing loss due to eviction and mortgage foreclosure in the U.S. Our new project will create a public tool to increase the capacity of communities to analyze their own housing data. 

What surprised you most about the project?

The biggest surprises is the lack of a comprehensive national dataset on either eviction or foreclosures. As a country, we’re not holistically tracking how often people lose their homes. This prevents us from understanding the magnitude of these processes and developing policies to prevent these losses. 

What data science skills have been most useful for this project?

This project involved bringing together a wide array of disparate data sets, so there was a very heavy focus on extract, transform, and load. Pandas and numpy (popular Python data manipulation and processing libraries) were definitely important for examining relationships within the data and their role in housing loss. 

What professional skills (non-data science) have been most useful for this project?

Being able to place the data in context for our partners and communities and explain our analysis in policy relevant terms were some of the important non-data science skills. 

What's your experience been collaborating with other volunteers on the project and/or working with the DataKind Global staff?

I worked with a truly wonderful team of very committed volunteers throughout this project. We worked over a five-month period during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a stressful time, but not a single team member left the project or even missed a weekly team meeting. That’s impressive, to say the least! I miss them.

Who inspires you?

People who stand up for what’s right with no expectation of personal gain or even recognition. 

If you could be any animal, which would you be?

I’d be a migratory seabird, so I could fly, live along the seashore and eat fresh fish!

Do you have a quote, song, or a piece of poetry that really inspires you? (Points if you have it memorized.) 

Dreams by Langston Hughes. “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams for when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow.”

About Volunteer Spotlights

Our volunteers are the lifeblood of our mission. They’ve inspired people to use their skills in ways they never dreamed of. They’ve slayed misconceptions. They’ve shown organizations trying to make the world a more humane place how data science and AI can change the game. We’re honored (and thrilled) to feature their stories in DataKind’s Volunteer Spotlight series. Follow this series to learn about their impeccable skill sets, their work with our brilliant project partners, and what inspires them to give their time, resources, and energy to causes that matter.