By Rob Mitchum

Data science is an increasingly global pursuit. During the first two years of Data Science for Social Good, we’ve welcomed fellows from Canada, Mexico, Israel, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, India, and China, and received applications from dozens of additional nations. This year’s program is no less international with Mexico, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, India, Germany, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Bangladesh, China, Croatia, and Canada all represented among the 2015 class. Each of these fellows brings an added layer of knowledge to the fellowship beyond their technical and academic skills: direct experience with social challenges found outside of the United States.

In 2013, the House of Representatives of Mexico approved a controversial contract, paying $9.3 million to a private vendor to create an app monitoring congressional activity. Within days, the Mexican hacking community mobilized to demonstrate the absurdity of this expense, holding a contest to create free, open source apps that served the Mexican public, not the government and special interests. Among the finalists, receiving honorable mention, was Mi Congreso, an app developed by 2015 DSSG Fellow Eduardo Blancas Reyes in his free time from student work at Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey.

“When I heard about the contest, my first thought was that I needed to participate,” Blancas Reyes said. “It was such an interesting way of protest.”

Mi Congreso is just one of a series of apps programmed by the 22-year-old Blancas Reyes, who studies mechatronics engineering at Monterrey Tech. Whether providing information on traffic laws to thwart police bribery and extortion or simplifying access to legal paperwork to improve access to public services, Blancas Reyes’ work shares a purpose of using technology to improve society.

“If I have the skills and I can improve public services just a little bit in order to help others, that’s enough motivation for me,” Blancas Reyes said. “Because I think by doing this I am demonstrating to the government and to the people that this kind of work is possible, and you don’t need millions of pesos to do it. You only need to understand people and make a little effort to make this easier.”

A similar mission to make government work better for the people has motivated the research of 2015 DSSG Fellow Eugenia Giraudy, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. Before enrolling in graduate school, Giraudy, 31, spent several years working with organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, conducting fieldwork and interviews across Latin America. Her current dissertation work is based upon 18 months of on-the-ground research in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, exploring the strategies used by conservative parties to attract support among poor voters.

To draw quantitative conclusions from her collected interviews, press releases, social media posts, and other text and speech sources, Giraudy pursued education in advanced analytical techniques, from machine learning to automated text analysis.

“After I did my fieldwork and gathered the information, I knew what the strategies were, but it was very hard for me to get a measurement that would be helpful to compare parties across countries, something I could base my conclusions on,” Giraudy said. “Learning these techniques was a very mind-opening process for me.”

Beyond grad school, Giraudy hopes to find a position where she can act as a “bridge” between the worlds of policy and statistics, giving governments new data-driven tools to design and assess the impact of public programs. Working with DSSG this summer will give her more experience at the junction of data science, government, and non-government organizations, she hopes.

“I would like to find a job that allows me to continue doing research, but allows to me to have an impact,” Giraudy said. “What the fellowship does is very appealing. I’m very excited to spend the summer doing this and seeing if it is as good as I think it will be.”