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.
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, , Editor in Chief, AllAnalytics.com