MacArthur Foundation Grant Supports Computing and Public Policy Efforts at Chicago Harris

The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has received a generous grant of $420,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support a range of computing and public policy projects.

The grant will help fund two senior fellowships at Chicago Harris. The senior fellows include Brett Goldstein, former chief information officer for the City of Chicago, and Rayid Ghani, who formerly served as chief scientist for the Obama 2012 presidential campaign. The grant will also enable Chicago Harris to convene the first Urban Technology Innovators Conference, and funds will support development of the school’s new Center for Computing and Public Policy.

“As public sector decision-making becomes more data-driven, the need to combine applied statistical analysis and computation skills with public policy training is increasingly urgent,” said Robert Goerge, Chicago Harris senior fellow and executive director of the new Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP) master’s program. “We’re extraordinarily grateful to the MacArthur Foundation for helping us pioneer efforts in this emerging field.”

Using data to guide decisions

Goldstein, the inaugural senior fellow in urban science, will help organize the Urban Technology Innovators Conference. Co-sponsored with the city of Chicago, the event will draw leaders in information technology and data analytics to Chicago in the spring of 2014 to learn about the latest research in their areas and build a professional network. He will also consult on the curriculum for CAPP, a two-year master’s program that will be offered jointly by Chicago Harris and the Department for Computer Science beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year.

The grant has already enabled Chicago Harris to begin connecting scholars and students with policy practitioners who have experience leveraging data and information technology to address public policy issues. The school is hosting monthly seminars on the topic, and Ghani, Chicago Harris senior fellow and research director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the UChicago Computation Institute, recently organized the University’s Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship program.

“Governments and nonprofits have large amounts of data that aren’t often used effectively,” said Ghani. “The people who are skilled at large-scale data analysis techniques often don’t have a public policy background, and the people who have a public policy background don’t necessarily have advanced skills in developing computational tools for large-scale data analysis.”

The Data Science for Social Good program was designed to help students realize the power of data to address complex social challenges. Over the course of 12 weeks, 40 students from around the country gathered to work on individual projects that helped them develop computational and data analysis skills and apply those skills to tackle public policy problems.

“One of our projects in partnership with the Mesa Public Schools in Arizona is identifying bright students who would benefit from encouragement to go to challenging colleges,” Ghani said. That project draws on historical data from the school district about school success to determine which students choose schools that aren’t challenging enough and end up failing to complete college. One participant is developing an algorithm that will help school administrators determine which students are most in need of encouragement so counselors can concentrate work on them.

An important tool for cities

Data analytics can also be an important way for municipal governments to improve services to their communities, said Goldstein, who edited a book on the subject titled Beyond Transparency, which was published in October.

“One of my first projects for the city of Chicago was to look at the problem of food deserts,” he explained, referring to areas with limited access to fresh produce. “It was more complicated than just looking at a map and seeing where the grocery stores were.” City data held information about neighborhoods’ population and proximity to grocery stores and other retail outlets, which proved helpful in establishing a policy to bring more fresh produce to underserved communities.

Such efforts can help cities identify efficiencies and improve services without incurring significant costs. “This work is particularly valuable at a time when cities are challenged financially, but it requires well-trained public policy experts who are adept at leveraging computer science to analyze data,” says Marc Farinella, chief operating officer at Chicago Harris. “With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Harris is well positioned to prepare future leaders for the unique challenges of this exciting field.”

--Bill Harms