Needed for Social Good: Bright Data Minds


As young adults or even as kids, many of you no doubt aspired to do good works. But then, as was the case for data scientist Rayid Ghani, "Life happened."

You head off to college, and then graduate school, and then seek out post-graduate employment. And where, as a data junkie, do you gravitate? To the businesses that have gobs and gobs of data. As Ghani, our guest for yesterday's A2 Radio show, put it:

A lot of people with my kind of background get sucked into the Internet world or the finance world -- not because we really care about those worlds, but that's where we think lots of data exists... Google, and Facebook, and LinkedIn, and Twitter, and Foursquare, and all sorts of those kinds of companies. When we read in the news about data, those are the companies that keep popping up. That's where the best people end up going in this field.

Rayid Ghani
Rayid Ghani

Ghani, for instance, found himself at Accenture Technology Labs, where, we learn from his CV, his research focused on "machine learning, text mining, and related areas motivated by business problems with high research and business impact." The projects he tackled were for Accenture itself as well as big-gun clients in a wide variety of industries.

Intellectually, you'll most undoubtedly be happy. Why wouldn't you be, with data as your playground? Ghani said he was. "Intellectual challenges around tools and methods for data analysis and machine learning and all the other buzzwords took over, and I really started getting excited by those," Ghani told us. He got his do-good fix in his "spare time," as a volunteer teacher and in working with kids.

But at some point you might, as Ghani did, grow dissatisfied with that duality. "I realized I wanted to merge the two parts of my life. I didn't just want to teach kids on weekends or go volunteer somewhere on weekends and then do my other job on the weekdays. I really wanted something that would put the two together."

Ghani left Accenture Labs and joined the Obama 2012 campaign in the summer of July 2011, and today, he has found a way to make a full-time career out of doing data for social good. Actually, make that two ways.

The first, an analytics startup called Edgeflip that's still in pilot mode, is set on creating social media analytics products for nonprofits and social good organizations, so they can leverage social networks to raise money, recruit, mobilize volunteers, and do targeted outreach and advocacy. It puts lots of the inspiration, influence, and advocacy expertise that Ghani and cofounders picked up during the Obama campaign into practice for larger social purposes, he said.

The second is his involvement at a university level because, after all, why shouldn't an exposure to doing data science for social good begin there, and divert some of the vacuum stream sucking up the data brains into the corporate world? As a student, "You never hear about working with public schools to improve graduation rates or people working with community development organizations trying to find out how to improve certain parts of society. You just don't get exposed to that very much."

That's why getting involved in using data for social good while still in school is "absolutely critical," Ghani said. To that end, he joined the University of Chicago, where among other responsibilities, he runs a data science fellowship specifically for social good projects. (Interestingly, the fellowship is sponsored by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, arguably the mother of all data companies, and his wife, Wendy.)

I would have to say Ghani, the U of C, and the Schmidts are on to something here with this fellowship, and it seems others in the higher ed community are starting to think so, too. Just last week, Ghani said, he hosted an assortment of academic peers to talk about the fellowship program and how others might approach similar initiatives. I'm encouraged by this, because, really, why should the data-rich and people-smart companies continue getting all of our emerging brightest and best?

Do you agree with me that academic opportunities that pave the way for data and analytics experts to move from their studies directly into social good organizations is a great idea? Share your "yes" or "no" below.

— Beth Schultz, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Editor in Chief, AllAnalytics.com

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Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors, Folio.net, and others.

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Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/28/2013 10:25:44 PM
NO RATINGS

@rbaz, excellent point about the student loans. Even if a kid has the great intentions, he or she often has to look for the biggest salary out of school simply to make ends meet.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/28/2013 1:57:52 AM
NO RATINGS

Proabably just hype Brodway,  .... probably just hype.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/28/2013 1:55:11 AM
NO RATINGS

" The forgiveness of some educational loans is a great start in promoting social good careers."

@kq4ym    Excellent point, let's not kid ourselves into thinking everyone is altruistic or even aspires to be.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/28/2013 1:51:25 AM
NO RATINGS

In general, I do support data and analytics experts moving outside their scope of study to do social good as well as encouraging this type of activity in the undergrad setting.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 4:06:04 PM
NO RATINGS

I happen to know about the loan forgiveness program because I've heard of it from a social worker who has benefited from the program. I would imagine if you're in that line of work you are aware of the ins and outs. Otherwise, I'm not so sure. But it's a tricky call in terms of when you might share that info. For example, I'm not too keen on the idea of telling somebody who's considering social work as a career that it's OK to take out educational loans because the feds will forgive them if you fulfill certain career obligations. For one, the government could cancel or change the program and for another, students as a whole are in way too much debt already and don't need any encouragement to take on more!

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 3:47:53 PM
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The forgiveness of some educational loans is a great start in promoting social good careers. But, I think it may be a little known program that would need some promotion in order to give incentives for many more to considers such careers.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 11:49:24 AM
NO RATINGS

Michael, and let's not forget that the federal government will forgive some educational loans for those who work in social services for X number of years. So there are domestic precedents for this sort of incentive. I like the idea!

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 10:21:01 AM
NO RATINGS

Exactly, Phoenix peer influence in forming consensus of views and leanings is strong and supports brave and progressive calls to social justice. But unfortunately the supportive environment is lost when they leave and join the so call real world. Fraternities and associations must fill the void to maintain it.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 8:53:16 AM
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Students in universities and other higher learning institutes are at the right point in their life to understand the importance of social service. So approaching them would be a good idea. Many revolutionary movements and innovative ideas were born in these higher education institutions.

Re: Data talent for the greater good
  • 11/25/2013 8:27:12 AM
NO RATINGS

Broadway, it's not hype but it is a generalization. The call to social stewardship is born of values instilled by family and friends, fostered and encouraged in colleges and universities. Unfortunately the message is not preached evenly and convincingly enough across the board. To be fair, real life pressures from student loans and cost of living does impact directions.

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