By Rob Mitchum

Last year, it was just an idea: Bring three dozen students to Chicago and prepare them for a career using data to make the world a better place. But when the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship was announced in March, it struck a nerve.

In less than a month, we received over 500 applications from around the world. Over the summer, the 36 chosen fellows (pictured below, with Google’s Eric Schmidt) worked with skilled mentors to partner with government agencies and nonprofits on solving important problems in transportation, education, health care, community development, energy, and public safety. They learned. They had fun. They made a difference.

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For 2014, we’re building on that momentum to make DSSG bigger and better. This summer, 48 fellows will come to Chicago from as far away as Australia, Colombia, and Nigeria. The fellows are undergraduate and graduate students with backgrounds in computer science, statistics, public policy, economics, math, psychology, and more, and they’ll form teams with ten experienced data science mentors from academia and industry.

They’ll work in Chicago’s Loop on over a dozen projects, spanning public health, education, economic and community development, social services, and other key areas. Partners range from international organizations and city agencies to small nonprofits and local governments that focus on addressing issues such as the environment, homelessness, health care and energy.

Our goal is to create a new breed of data scientist skillful in working with both data and organizations doing social good. Such a person needs to be multi-faceted, comfortable with computational and statistical methods and programming, but also capable of working with front-line organizations to find the most urgent problems and the right data and solutions to tackle them.

There is rising demand for these kinds of experts. The growth of volunteer civic hacking communities has bloomed into companies that offer data consultancy services to nonprofits. Cities and communities around the world increasingly embrace open government policies that release data, encouraging collaboration between citizens and agencies to find novel solutions that optimize public services.

Data Science for Social Good hopes to provide a broader, deeper approach for solving problems with data. Instead of hackathons and data dives, the fellowship provides three months to intensively focus on projects. Fellows form interdisciplinary teams that mix knowledge in computer science, social science, and policy, and work hand in hand with partner organizations all summer to gain the knowledge needed to ask the right questions. More advanced analytic approaches, such as machine learning, text analysis, modeling, and simulation, can be applied to these immense social problems and create helpful, sustainable tools for the partners and public.

Many nonprofits and government agencies sit upon rich stores of useful data, but lack the expertise to extract valuable insight from the information, or the funds to hire their own analytics staff. The projects completed at DSSG this summer will not only help partner organizations, but serve as demonstrations to other entities of what similar collaborations can do to help them in their mission.

In this way, the fellowship hopes to contribute to the emerging field of data science, to stretch its potential beyond the private sector and help solve the world’s biggest problems. We’re thankful for the generous support of the Schmidt Family Foundation in realizing this goal, to the partner organizations who will bring their problems and expertise to the program, to the skilled mentors who will dedicate this summer to guiding the projects, and the 48 talented fellows who will bring their talents and enthusiasm to Chicago this summer. Let’s commit to a better world.