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Data for Social Good is More Important Than Ever

By Scottie Barsotti

AI and data science can be used to help solve large-scale public policy issues—CMU and Heinz College prepare students to have a positive impact

Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are working their way into the public sector. Governments have access to large datasets that, when combined with technology, can deliver powerful solutions and benefits in areas like disaster readiness, public health, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and safety inspections to name a few. AI also has the potential to make government more efficient—a Deloitte study estimates that automation and AI augmentation could free up hundreds of millions of working hours by federal employees while saving billions of dollars every year.

At the same time, private companies around the world are investing billions of dollars to ramp up their use of predictive analytics and AI. Non-profits would like to catch up, but don’t always have the budget to adopt technological solutions, even those that may be low-hanging fruit.

So, government has the data and ability to deploy solutions at scale. Private industry has the capital. Non-profits have the problem-specific missions. The question is: who gets the talent?

Hopefully, they all do.

There’s an opportunity for governments, non-profits and NGOs, private companies, and universities to pool their resources and leverage their distinct advantages for the greater good. In the meantime, data experts entering the workforce have a choice to make between seemingly countless career paths.

Regardless of the specific career trajectory they choose, data scientists and experts in analytics and AI should enter professional life looking for intentional and proactive ways to use data for social good.

The students and faculty of Heinz College and Carnegie Mellon University have been at the forefront of using data for social good for years, and it’s a major area of activity for CMU’s Block Center for Technology and Society. And recently, the CMU faculty welcomed Rayid Ghani, a pioneering data scientist focused on ethical applications of analytics and technology for social good.

The Chief Scientist of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Ghani recently came to CMU from the University of Chicago, where he founded the Center for Data Science and Public Policy and created the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship. Joining the faculty at CMU is a homecoming for Ghani—he received a master’s in machine learning from the School of Computer Scientist.

In his official bio, Ghani calls himself a “reformed computer scientist turned wannabe social scientist.” While he’s is hardly a wannabe at anything, that description tells you a lot about how he sees things. A heavyweight in the fields of analytics and computer science, Ghani has not devoted himself to the nuts and bolts of technical supremacy, but rather established laser-like focus on the human side of data science. 

“There is incredible work happening in computer science right now, as well as extremely important work in the policy space,” said Ghani. “To me, though, the most exciting developments are what’s happening where these areas intersect. When you look there, you can glimpse our potential to create a better, more equitable world.” 

In his research, Ghani uses analytics and advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to produce solutions across critical areas including criminal justice, environmental justice, public health, education, economic development, data transparency, and algorithmic fairness. 

“What we’re seeing now is that public policy and technology, these areas which may have been siloed in the past, they are colliding in ways that deserve our attention,” said Ghani. “CMU is ideally positioned to train leaders who can use technology to inform public policy, and vice versa. We need to share knowledge across disciplines and collaborate in unprecedented ways to move society forward, and CMU understands this better than any other institution.” 

Rayid Ghani on Data for Good

During Public Interest Technology Week at CMU, Ghani gave a presentation at Heinz College on his recent projects and the importance of socially conscious data science.