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Data science program scores another win

Success is clearly the trend for a one-of-a-kind summerData science program reveal event on Zoom internship program in Florida, created and run at UNF. Referred to as FL-DSSG, or Florida Data Science for Social Good, the project has completed its fourth year, and a team of interns once again has succeeded at finding data-driven solutions for area nonprofits.

Temple DePlato, the assistant vice president of Quality and Risk Management at Episcopal Children’s Services, one of three nonprofits participating in the summer program, called the team’s results “amazing.” Speaking over Zoom at the program’s annual Big Reveal Aug. 18, DePlato explained that the organization operates with limited funding to provide early childhood services that improve school readiness. Having a better way to find the area’s most vulnerable families would improve the organization’s impact.

To solve the problem, the interns used multiple data sources to create an interactive dashboard with profiles of area neighborhoods. “Our vision was just to have a basic heat map that would guide us to where to find those families and serve them,” DePlato said. “This decision tool that has been created by the team allows us to do so much more … we’ve just been amazed with the outcomes.”

The seven-member team of interns, comprised of students from UNF and other Florida universities, also worked with the Literacy Alliance of Northeast Florida and the Center for Children’s Rights. For each project, they were guided by the program’s creators, Dr. Karthikeyan Umapathy, associate professor in the School of Computing, and Dr. Dan Richard, director for Center for Community-Based Learning and associate professor of psychology. In addition, students relied on expertise from community mentors and UNF faculty.

Speaking prior to The Big Reveal, Umapathy described the role of mentors this summer as “very powerful.” He explained that unlike classwork with the sole consequence of a grade, the nonprofit projects have a dramatic human impact. With only 12 weeks to find solutions, there is an urgency to find the right answers and avoid mistakes. For example, while using a data visualization software, the team hit a few roadblocks. “We needed tricks and tips to get over the limitations of the tool, so our mentors gave us some tips that allowed us to add more information,” Umapathy said. “Their guidance and directions were critical to our success.”

Richard said the interns also benefited from the expertise of UNF faculty. For example, Dr. Jody Nicholson, associate professor of psychology, gave advice on the cognitive development in children, which allowed the team to select the most important variables for the dashboard. “They were getting advice from data scientists who are actually working in the industry and also getting domain expertise from facility at the academic institution,” Richard said. “All these people came together to serve the needs of the community.”

In part, Umapathy and Richard created the program in 2017 to help students develop their skills in data science, an important emerging field. Yet, there was more. “Of course, the purpose for this data science is to do social good as well,” Richard said. “We are training data scientists to have a social conscience, and that’s the purpose of the internship.”

In addition, the interns have a unique opportunity to work with real-world data and real-world issues. “They’ve learned that sometimes data is messy, sometimes it’s not well organized,” Richard said. “They also learned that data is really about people. They can crunch numbers and run reports, but ultimately we have to draw conclusions that impact human beings.”

Dr. Chip Klostermeyer, dean of the College of Computing, Engineering and Construction, told the Zoom audience that he considers the FL-DSSG one of the signature programs at UNF. “It embodies everything that UNF is about, all that we value,” he said. “I really want to thank Karthik and Dan and all the people who work at it. I’m really proud of them. They put a lot of time and their own resources into this project. It’s really a labor of love. It’s just such a joy to watch.”

Read more about the 2020 FL-DSSG program.