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Data for Good: The Year in Review

1 January 2021 No Comment

David CorlissWith a PhD in statistical astrophysics, David Corliss leads a data science team at Fiat Chrysler. He serves on the steering committee for the Conference on Statistical Practice and is the founder of Peace-Work, a volunteer cooperative of statisticians and data scientists providing analytic support for charitable groups and applying statistical methods in issue-driven advocacy.

The year 2020 was a year of great changes and challenges. From a pandemic, working from remote locations, economic upheaval, and constant challenges against science during a highly polarized election year, we come to a new year exhausted and yet full of hope. The Data for Good community has been at the center of many storms in the past year, rising to the challenge to support communities, guide an economy through a sea of troubles, preserve the environment, fight for justice, and—perhaps as no year before—save lives.

More than any other event in this tumultuous year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put Data for Good in a variety of crucial roles. From understanding the virus and its effects to best practices to avoid spreading the disease to the race to develop treatments and vaccines, analytics has been at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. D4G teams have also been deeply engaged in addressing the wider effects of the pandemic, including economic disruption and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 or marginalized communities. The pandemic has had ecological impacts, as well, giving us a line of sight into a world with less pollution in many places. And ASA journals, conferences, and webinars have played a leading role in rapid dissemination of important research on COVID-19 and its effects.

During this pandemic, we have learned a lot about SARS-CoV-2 and the virus that causes it. Sadly, the pandemic has also been a working laboratory on the psychology and sociology of science rejection and its potentially deadly consequences. Perhaps the most important lesson the D4G community has learned is that getting the science right is essential but science alone is not enough. Effective communication, policy advocacy, and support for science education at the elementary level so kids are less likely to suffer from science denial later on are as much a part of Data for Good as analyzing the data.

Analytic tools, methods, and technology continued to advance rapidly in 2020, perhaps even accelerating at times due to the urgency of the pandemic. Applying new technology to develop solutions in Data for Good has been a theme for this column this year. Tools and techniques for working with big data are becoming basic skills used in many areas of statistics. Big data is almost everywhere in D4G today. Social media data is mined for hundreds of projects making an impact on peoples’ lives, from tapping medical opinions to better understand COVID-19 to identifying victims of hidden crimes like human trafficking. Satellite data is another area of technological advancement, with a wave of new D4G projects in 2020. The data is often freely available for the public, especially government data sources, making it a great choice for hackathons. Analysis of satellite data is being used to fight wild fires, monitor forest cover, and even identify populations at higher risk of COVID-19 without going door to door during the pandemic.

One data tool I have noticed becoming more important is SQL. It’s becoming a kind of lingua franca for data—a language everyone uses to move data independently of platform or analytic software, independent of the language used for analysis. This is especially important for students, who often learn many powerful analytic tools and methods only to find they can’t use them to solve problems without SQL to access and move the data. Cloud environments and tools make up another area of rapid technological advancement. As big data continues to grow in importance, SQL and cloud tools have, too. D4G projects are a great place to learn and apply these skills.

2020 may always be remembered as the “Year of COVID,” but it will also be remembered as a watershed year for Data for Good in the ASA. At JSM, D4G took center stage with the theme Everyone Counts: Data for the Public Good. JSM 2020 became the premier event for D4G practitioners with sessions, panels, and events dedicated to using statistics to make a difference in thousands of ways. It was a generational event in Data for Good globally, fostering enthusiasm, learning, and networking. All in all, JSM was a remarkable event that will have an impact on D4G practitioners and practices for years to come.

One highlight at JSM every year is the announcement of the winner of the ASA’s Karl E. Peace Award for Outstanding Statistical Contributions for the Betterment of Society. This year’s recipient, Francesca Dominici of Harvard, was recognized for her leading work at the intersection of statistics and public policy, addressing issues of transparency and reproducibility in science in general, and her statistical work on the health effects of pollution.

Looking ahead, DataKind founder Jake Porway offered his insight in a December Amstat News interview. The conversation covered designing effective projects, focusing on finding the right problem to be solved, and developing private-sector partnerships to make an impact on a global scale. This visionary leader discussed systematic inequalities and how to use data and analysis to bring about lasting structural change for the greatest impact on peoples’ lives. If you haven’t seen the interview, be sure to check it out.

2020 has certainly been a year for the record books. As we wrap up, I want to express my deep thanks for everyone at Amstat News, especially Managing Editor Megan Murphy. The entire team at the ASA has been tremendously supportive of this column and the vital role Data for Good plays in making a difference for so many. Most of all, I want to thank you—our readers—and everyone in the Data for Good community for your continued interest and support. Please say hello at conferences and events (even if virtual) or send an email to suggest topics, projects, and events to feature in Stats4Good.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supports a number of scholarships for undergraduate education and summer internships, which offer many excellent opportunities to work in environmental science for the greater good. Applications are due by February 1. Get the details.

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