A U.S. Army veteran, Colby wants to use evidence-based interventions to support aid programs in conflict areas.
Headshot of Darren Colby
Darren Colby

Darren Colby, MSCAPP Class of 2024, served as a senior information manager in the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces from 2014–18. Having joined the army right after high school, he eventually managed databases regarding Islamic State recruitment and Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Although there was some data available on these subjects, Colby said he found it hard to use because it existed in different formats and in various locations. “More importantly the data from conflict areas is often incomplete, messy, and requires extensive cleaning.”

Colby wanted to figure out a way to improve the data and make it more usable. He developed a manual to store, analyze, and disseminate information, and worked to improve knowledge management across his group. "In order to develop the manual, I had to really think about how the group collected and utilized information, and what challenges existed in using the data across different U.S. government agency platforms. I saw how much potential we could have if we made good use of our data and created evidence-based decisions,” Colby said.

In 2018, Colby left the military and enrolled at Dartmouth College on a Posse Foundation Scholarship. He majored in government. "My plan, originally, was to avoid any quantitative classes," he said with a laugh. "However, I was surprised to find that after my time in the military, I thoroughly enjoyed math and computer science classes."

During undergrad, Colby worked at Dartmouth’s Political Violence FieldLab, where he analyzed U.S. airstrikes in Iraq to assess their effect on counterinsurgency. He then worked on a project to evaluate the World Bank’s National Solidarity Program. He also spent a summer working at Observatorio de la Democracia in Bogotá, Colombia, where he worked on a dataset on the Colombia Peace Process.

"I really enjoyed working with political violence data: I wanted to make it my career—doing something where I can bring data-driven decision making to security or international development organizations, because there is a big need for it," Colby said. "Many organizations could do a lot more good if they moved away from a culture of doing things the way they have always been done towards evidence-based decisions.”

However, Colby didn’t feel he necessarily had the skillset needed to conduct his own field research.

His boss at the Political Violence FieldLab suggested he look into studying public policy at Harris. Colby was attracted to the MS in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) program because of its combined focus on math and computer science. “Harris was my number one choice for graduate school because of the MSCAPP program,” he said. “I have seen and heard a lot about Harris being very intense and also very analytical.”

From his classes at Harris, Colby hopes to learn how to create models to help organizations make predictions and decisions. “I am still trying to figure out how exactly I want to use that skill after Harris, but I have a few avenues I am considering. One is doing impact evaluations in conflict settings to see how different types of aid or interventions reduce violence. But I also would like to help U.S. defense officials improve their decision making, so I may want to work for a security-focused think tank.

“Having observed the interconnectivity of computer science and policy in academic and applied settings, I am confident that combining both through MSCAPP will allow me to conduct ethical and effective impact evaluations, leading to more informed decisions about aid programs in violent settings,” Colby said.