In SUDS, Heinz College Students Craft Hyperlocal Impact
By Scott Barsotti
Despite the name, SUDS has nothing to do with craft beer. This Carnegie Mellon University data club—co-founded by and involving many Heinz College students—does pro-bono work for local clients, using analytic skills to improve life in the Pittsburgh metro area and surrounding region.
“We want data to feel accessible and not this mysterious thing that you can only use if you have an advanced degree,” said Lauren Renaud, a recent graduate of Heinz College’s Master of Science in Public Policy and Management – Data Analytics (MSPPM-DA) program. The “We” she refers to is SUDS, a campus-wide group at CMU that uses data tools and techniques to help community organizations make key decisions.
Founded in 2015, SUDS (which stands for Students for Urban Data Systems…more on that in a minute) has regular meetings and workshops on campus where members can get together, work with data, learn new skills, share ideas, and socialize.
But the real impact SUDS students have is in the communities of the Pittsburgh region, where they partner with local organizations on data-driven projects.
“An important theme I have seen throughout all SUDS projects is an effort to make the invisible visible, in order to make it real,” said Justin Cole, a SUDS co-founder who also recently graduated from the Heinz College MSPPM-DA program. He says giving problems that tangibility is important when social issues compete for limited resources and attention.
“[We can use data to say], ‘This is a problem that you can’t avoid anymore. This is a problem we can now see, we can now share, we can now think about and analyze.’ And that’s when change happens.”
What does that change look like? Read on.
The problem of overlapping police jurisdictions
Through SUDS, Renaud partnered with Lizzie Silver, a Ph.D. student in philosophy from CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences who also recently completed a second master’s degree in machine learning. Together, they worked with the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) to create an interactive map illustrating where Allegheny County’s police departments operate—and more importantly, where their jurisdictions overlap. Allegheny County, a 745-square mile area including the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding metro, contains over 120 police departments.
In addition to Pennsylvania state police, the sheriff’s department, and the U.S. Marshals, Renaud and Silver found that there are over 100 municipalities in Allegheny County that employ their own police forces, as do most of the county’s universities (including CMU) and the Pittsburgh Public Schools. That’s not including the Port Authority transit police, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern rail police, Fish and Boat Commission police, Veterans Affairs police, Humane Society police, hospital police—St. Clair Hospital employs a force, as does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) health system, which operates 11 hospitals in Allegheny county.
“When we talk police jurisdictions, it’s not like officers reach a border and stop. There are a lot of times where there are multiple officers from different jurisdictions on a call, which is confusing for the people involved, and also potentially confusing for the officers,” said Renaud. “If you’re working alongside someone, you [may not] know what their training is or their protocols for [use of force].”
Surveys have indicated that there are as many as 18,000 police departments in the United States. Renaud and Silver say Allegheny County is a microcosm of that issue.
“We hope that this work will help educate people on the complexity of the policing landscape and support policy recommendations,” said Silver. Those recommendations include cross-training of more uniform policies across departments, as well as consolidation of smaller forces.
“It all comes back to public safety. It’s harder to police a community that doesn’t trust the police. This makes the landscaping of policing more transparent to people,” said Silver.
The problem of exploitation in a rebounding neighborhood
Nick Kharas graduated from Heinz College’s Master of Information Systems Management (MISM) program in the fall of 2016. SUDS connected him with three students from CMU’s Tepper School of Business on a project analyzing real estate data in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood community.
Hazelwood is seen locally as a neighborhood on the cusp of resurgence. There has been significant investment in the area in recent years, most notably the Hazelwood Green (fka Almono) development site which is home to a test track for Uber’s autonomous vehicles division as well as the future site of two major CMU advanced manufacturing initiatives: the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute and Manufacturing Futures Initiative.
However, as with any locale slapped with the “next hot neighborhood” label, there is concern that while capital infusion could have broad positive effects, that Hazelwood will gentrify and become unaffordable for existing residents.
“Although there is not much gentrification right now, it can happen that bad investors who might want to flip properties without any intention to rehabilitate them can take over the market and make the neighborhood unstable,” said Kharas.
Using public data from the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, Kharas and his team focused on activity in 15207, Hazelwood’s zip code, and sought to identify and predict investor behaviors that are more likely to be detrimental in order to separate out exploitative actors from those whose investments might benefit the neighborhood. The team’s analysis targeted parcels that had been owned for less than three years and were either resold for less than $90,000, had depreciated in property value, or had appreciated less than 15 percent since purchase.
“A neighborhood stands to benefit if houses in poor or unlivable conditions are purchased and redeveloped,” the team wrote on the SUDS blog, “Unlike ‘rehabbers,’ ‘flippers’…buy and keep properties in distressed conditions, and hope to sell them off for a profit as quickly as possible. Such behavior…negatively affects the community and quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Kharas and his team laid out several recommendations—which they had the opportunity to share with Hazelwood’s Councilman, Corey O’Connor, on a phone call—including fortifying minimum rental property standards and tenants’ rights, establishing city-sanctioned property management academies for landlords, and financial support programs for property rehabilitation to foster healthy, stable investments.
“Policies like that could be implemented by the city government, and I believe they would have a lot of benefit,” said Kharas. “If the communities that are living there continue to stay there and are not displaced, that would be a big achievement.”
You can read more about this project and its methodology on the SUDS blog.
The problem of fracking’s unseen hazards
Many SUDS members additionally work on individual projects outside of the organization’s scope, but that share the SUDS mission. Kee Won Song (MSPPM ’18) is a SUDS member with a particular interest in environmental policy, and since before he came to CMU he has been working with the non-profit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP).
Song says that while a great deal of attention is paid to the effects of fracking on clean water, there is a research gap related to air quality. EHP, fortunately, has distributed air quality monitors to residents in southwestern Pennsylvania to collect data.
Current regulation examines pollutant exposure on a 24-hour average, which Song says is inadequate and does not give an accurate measure of true exposure for these communities. Analyzing EHP’s data, Song noticed that pollution may fall in the legal range over the 24-hour period per the law, but that there are “wild spikes” in pollution readings during the day.
“How do we quantify the damage done by those spikes? That’s startling to look at,” said Song.
Song hopes that by bringing this issue to light, he and the EHP will be able to influence regulation, such as how close to property lines fracking wells can be built.
“[Wells are built] next to schools, next to old folks’ homes, and…there’s lots of evidence that fracking is disproportionately sited near low-income communities,” said Song. “I think it’s unfair that people who have limited financial, political, and social capital are not able to defend themselves from exposure. In fact, they’re not even allowed to know what their exposure is. If we are able to make that more transparent that’s the number one thing.”
SUDS has given Song a new audience for this work, which he hopes will raise interest and get other members involved in environmental policy projects.
SUDS is campus-wide…and beyond
Students at CMU have resources available to create their own clubs and initiatives, and are highly encouraged to organize. In some cases, those clubs can grow quite large and even transcend physical boundaries. Cole calls SUDS “a platform and an idea,” giving it an abstract quality that is replicable and scalable, and has allowed it to spread beyond CMU’s main campus—SUDS has active members in Heinz College’s Washington, D.C. office, and even helped support the creation of a new Data Science Club at CMU Africa’s campus in Kigali, Rwanda.
Even its name is ethereal. “Students for Urban Data Systems,” Cole says, quickly became obsolete.
“We are no longer just students, as we have community members who are active in the organization. We no longer just focus on urban areas,” he said. “We have talked about having [our official name] be the acronym, just SUDS, and have it stand for nothing.” (A group passionately driven by evidence-based impact operating under a name with no significance? One can’t help but appreciate the irony.)
Data is still at the center of the group’s mission—which keeps it placed solidly in the Heinz College wheelhouse—but one need not understand data analytics to join up. The group’s work nights, or “hack nights,” give participants the ability to work with pre-cleaned data sets and learn valuable new skills, everything from basic Excel or Google Sheets tools to more advanced programming like Python.
“At our last work night we had three different people use [the programming language] R for the first time,” said Silver.
The group has members from all of CMU’s seven colleges, including the College of Fine Arts, and its new Board has a mix of undergraduates, graduates, and Ph.D. students from four of those seven colleges. The response has made Cole optimistic that SUDS will continue to thrive beyond its founders’ tenure on campus, as diverse new leaders take up the reins of the organization.
“SUDS has been able to flourish so far due to the ability of Heinz College and CMU to attract students who are specifically interested in the intersection of data and policy,” said Cole. “This is the perfect place to try out this idea, organizing around data for social good.”