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Spinning data into business gold

Florida Data Science for Social Good group talking about a project
Britni Surprenant and seven other students spent the summer writing code, entering data records and running reports. But they weren’t simply manipulating numbers. Their ultimate goal was to reveal information that would tell a story.

“When you’re analyzing data, you can lose focus on the fact that the numbers are about real people,” said Surprenant, who is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology at UNF. “Our goal was to make sense of the data and provide essential information that our community partner could use to improve people’s lives.”

The work is part of a UNF initiative referred to as Florida Data Science for Social Good, now in its second year. Spearheaded by Dr. Dan Richard, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. Karthikeyan Umapathy, associate professor of computing, the data science program pairs students with local organizations working to solve social problems. In addition to supporting the partners, the program also creates an educational opportunity for aspiring data scientists.

A data science project at the University of Chicago provided the spark to create the UNF initiative. Richard and Umapathy spent one year fashioning a unique program to meet the needs of UNF students. Though the goal was to provide a learning experience within an emerging field, it was equally important to the two professors to make a difference. “We have been entrusted with knowledge through our education,” Richard said. “And because other people contributed to our learning, we now want to share this expertise with the community and motivate students to do the same.” Thus, the program’s motto is: “We are social trustees of knowledge with a unique capacity to do social good.”

After a successful pilot in 2017, Richard and Umapathy selected interns this summer to work with four community partners: Baptist Health Y Healthy Living Centers; Girls, Inc. of Jacksonville; Family Support Systems; and Performance Academy. Umapathy said he and Richard chose students from a variety of majors rather than only computing and statistics, often the dominant backgrounds for data science. “We wanted to show that the best way to solve problems is with a team of people from a variety of disciplines and perspectives,” Umapathy said.

Though assigned to specific projects, the interns worked together three days a week, creating a sense of community, according to Surprenant. “We all shared ideas and problems and what we had learned,” she said. “To be able to have access to all that knowledge, was incredibly helpful.”

Surprenant served as project leader for the Baptist Health Y Healthy Living Centers, which are located in YMCA facilities and use wellness coaches and health screenings to detect warning signs for chronic disease. UNF master’s graduate in public health Julie Schafer, ’10, as director of health partnerships for Baptist Health, was looking for information on the impact of centers.

“We had all of this data, but didn’t have the time or data analysts to really look at what it was telling us about the communities we were serving,” Schafer said. “These students took large data sets and turned them into information that tells a story, which in turn advises our operations team on what we can do to truly impact people’s health.”

“We couldn’t be more pleased or impressed with the project,” Schafer said, “or the students we worked with throughout the summer.”