Thinking CAPP

Bridgit Donnelly first caught the data bug in 2012 while tinkering with spreadsheets as a regional field director on the Obama campaign. “I kind of fell in love with Excel,” she recalls.

Although she enjoyed helping Obama and other candidates coordinate and broadcast their campaign messages, she yearned for more opportunities to inform strategy and policy using data. And though she continued coding in her free time, she says, she eventually hit a wall in her programming ability.

Unwilling to decide between pursuing her interest in policy and her passion for data science, she postponed plans for graduate school – until she heard about CAPP.

The two-year master’s degree program in Computational Analysis and Public Policy, offered jointly by Chicago Harris and the Department of Computer Science, aims to forge a new group of leaders at the intersection of policy analysis and computation. “It was hard to find a comparable program elsewhere,” she says.

Donnelly is among the twelve students in the inaugural CAPP class matriculating this fall. She and her classmates will complete a rigorous core curriculum that blends staples of public policy and computation: five hands-on courses in applied computer science, six policy courses in economics, statistics and organizational theory, plus an integrative seminar bridging the two subjects.

But the coursework is only the beginning. Internships and capstone projects will give students the chance to work alongside policy leaders, and CAPP Executive Director Robert Goerge plans to bring in experts to share how they’re leveraging computational tools to look at problems. “We want to get people on the pathway to leadership, and a lot of that is just being aware of the public sector context,” Goerge explains.

“Using data in policy is not new,” says Professor Christopher Berry, who helped get CAPP off the ground and serves as the program’s faculty co-director. “It’s what Chicago Harris has stood for from its beginning. What has changed, Berry adds, is the amount of data available, and the ease of analysis. As technology accelerates the speed at which we can extract information from a vast range of sources – transit information, financial transactions, even satellite images – government leaders are increasingly motivated to let data inform how they make policy.

This “generational shift” demands a new breed of public servant with the savvy to navigate the complex policy world as well as the digital prowess to keep at the forefront of data analytics.

Such people are in short supply, according to Brett Goldstein, a Chicago Harris senior fellow and adviser to CAPP. He should know – for two years, Goldstein served as Chicago’s first-ever chief data officer under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While working for the city he launched WindyGrid, a database system for city personnel that brought troves of municipal information together in one place, revolutionizing the flow of data in City Hall.

But when Goldstein sought to grow his team, he struggled to find people equipped for the job. “You have policy folks and you have IT folks,” he explains, and when it came to data analytics, the former were dependent upon the latter. “Anyone can make a pie chart,” he says, “but what we need is smart, nimble real-time analysis.”

That requires being prepared to navigate what statisticians call “dirty data” – databases riddled with erroneous information and missing data points. “If you’re doing practical instead of theoretical work, you have to know how to get around these problems,” says CAPP faculty co-director Anne Rogers, who also serves as director of graduate studies for the Department of Computer Science. Rogers, who teaches an applied programming sequence for beginners, was enthusiastic about partnering with CAPP to get analytical tools in the hands of policy practitioners. “I want to give them the skills to do good work now, and the foundation to do even more in ten years,” she says.

Perhaps because there are no prerequisites, the program has attracted students from varied backgrounds. They include a Federal Reserve researcher, a Chilean education adviser, a math teacher and a fashion designer turned grassroots organizer. “Although diverse, all of them have a profound interest in influencing policy by using data-driven analytics and political theory,” says Jeremy Edwards, senior associate dean for academic and student affairs. “They also understand that in many ways, they will be pioneers in this field.”

“We’re staking out a different territory,” Berry agrees. “This is not a degree where you only learn a little bit about each of these two things. This is meant to train serious people to do serious work.”

 –Jake J. Smith

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