Data for good
by Greta Friar
Forty hours might seem like an impossibly short period of time in which to tackle complex societal challenges. Yet over the weekend of October 23 to 25, the participants in the fourth iteration of the MIT Policy Hackathon developed innovative solutions to a number of important issues, from a tool for measuring gentrification to a framework that could help protect vulnerable communities from environmental harm.
The MIT Policy Hackathon, a student-led event organized by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Technology and Policy Program (TPP), was designed to bring together people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds, including data scientists, engineers, and policy specialists, to tackle complex real-world problems posed by government, industry, and nonprofit partners. This year, participants worked around the clock for the better part of two days to analyze data and develop policy proposals addressing challenges in areas like internet policy, environmental justice, Covid-19, transportation, and planning—all of which fell under the umbrella of this year’s theme: equity and engagement.
“This year’s theme acknowledges that effective solutions to address the challenges facing society require considering issues of equity and justice. The Policy Hackathon provides a unique opportunity for teams to work directly with stakeholders to address these issues head-on, providing insights that combine data and policy analysis,” said Noelle Selin, Director of TPP and an associate professor at MIT.
The focus of the event resonated with participants.
“As soon as we opened up applications, we got so many responses that said, ‘I applied because of the theme, because you’re talking about equity,’” said Nina Peluso, chair of the Hackathon organizing team and a master’s student in TPP.
This is the first time that the Hackathon has taken place online, and the virtual setting lent itself well to the event’s collaborative aims. Unconstrained by the requirement to travel to MIT, participants from 22 states and 33 countries took part in the event. The diverse group used social media channels maintained by the event organizers to network, communicate about the event, and then simply to stay connected. Many participants requested a way to keep their newfound community going after the weekend, so event organizers founded a Policy Hackathon LinkedIn group.
The online setting also allowed event organizers to select from a wider geographical range of challenge sponsors. Specific challenges included:
- Contributing to the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project
- Analyzing the downstream effects of decreased office space usage during COVID-19 on small businesses in the Puget Sound region and proposing solutions
- Evaluating possible links between bicycle infrastructure and gentrification in Los Angeles County
- Helping the Global Center for Climate Justice redefine Environmental Justice Populations in Massachusetts by incorporating cumulative impact assessments
- Creating a better model for collecting data on internet censorship to inform internet governance policies
Participants in each challenge had the opportunity to discuss their ideas with mentors, a group consisting of challenge sponsors, judges, and MIT student challenge directors. Then teams submitted their policy memos, presentation decks, and a three-minute pitch to the judges. On Sunday afternoon, the top three teams in each challenge area repeated their pitches in the final round of judging. After a series of tough deliberations, the judges announced winners in each category. Winning teams received a $1000 monetary prize and an invitation to author a paper based on their proposal for the publication MIT Science Policy Review.
Organizers and judges congratulated all teams on the strength of the policy proposals that they created in under forty hours. Hannah Keyes, senior regional planner for the Southern California Association of Government, the transportation challenge sponsor, said that winning team ‘The Cyclists’ proposal stood out for the way it combined technical analysis with legibility when examining links between bike infrastructure and gentrification.
“They made creative use of the data provided to develop their own ‘gentrification score.’ This technique for analyzing the data could easily be replicated for other geographies, making it a valuable tool for the Southern California region,” Keyes said.
Judges praised other winning proposals as innovative, sophisticated, and well-formulated.
Talking science and policy
In addition to the challenges posed, the Hackathon also offered a selection of talks and workshops over the weekend. In a panel on science communication, scientist and science writer Farah Qaiser was joined by Emily Calandrelli, host and co-Executive Producer of “Emily’s Wonder Lab,” a Netflix educational series teaching science experiments to children. Calandrelli graduated from the MIT Technology and Policy Program in 2013 and has since produced multiple television series about science education for adults and children.
Opening keynote speaker Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan, explored the politics of data and how data should be “used for the public good.” Closing speaker Nnenna Nwakanma, Chief Web Advocate for the World Wide Web Foundation and a globally recognized leader on digital governance, spoke about the importance of keeping the web open, the power of data, and the value of hackathons.
“Nothing compares to someone who is working passionately to find solutions to a known problem,” Nwakanma said.
Asked how the Hackathon attracts such strong participants—nearly 150 from around the world—Erin Walk, the Hackathon’s external affairs director and an SES PhD candidate, spoke to the unique opportunity that the Hackathon provides.
“Whether you’re in industry or academia, it’s very easy to get siloed into the exact problem that you’re working on. The Policy Hackathon gives you a chance to get outside of whatever your usual brain space is, and your usual workflow and your usual data sets, and try thinking about something new with a set of different people,” Walk said.
That opportunity becomes even more compelling when the problem to be solved is one of equity and justice. The solutions that came out of the 2020 MIT Policy Hackathon showed without a doubt that data is powerful, and that when that power is skillfully and creatively harnessed, it can be used to great effect for the public good.