60 Arts graduate students hone analytic skills at inaugural MPS Policy Datafest

Friday, March 15, 2019

While much of the world is talking big data, the story in Canada seems to be our shortage of it. Recent media reports about our country’s data deficit may be true to an extent, says economics professor Anindya Sen, but there are actually good datasets available through open government portals. The challenge is fully utilizing them to make informed policy decisions that improve people’s lives.

That’s why Sen organized the Master of Public Service (MPS) Policy Datafest. The event brought contemporary policy questions faced by different levels of government to Faculty of Arts graduate students, challenging them to use their analytical skills to mine datasets and extract meaningful insights to inform policymaking.

While hackathons and other data mining competitions certainly aren’t new, what makes this data hacking event unique is that all 60 hackers were from humanities and social science fields. 

“Much of the data deficit could be addressed by ensuring people have the skills to not only know how to look for data, but how to interpret it,” says Sen, who is the current director of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service program.

“Datafest is a great experiential learning opportunity for students in the social sciences and humanities because they are the ones who go on to work on policy questions in government or private sectors.”

Sen collaborated with government departments and agencies to develop the hacking event, held over two-days with 14 teams of students from six Arts graduate programs, including economics, English, global governance, psychology, and sociology as well as MPS. Agencies such as Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) Canada provided teams with specific datasets and question about Canadian social, economic, and environmental conditions. Then it was up to the students to dive into the data to find the answers and develop policy recommendations.

 “Government organizations are actually coming forward and pointing us to their open data, for which our Arts graduate students are well-equipped to analyze and reveal their utility for informing policy,” says Sen.

In fact, the list of participating government organizations attests to their need and interest. Along with ISED, Datafest data and questions came from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Ontario Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, Ontario Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Tourism, and the Region of Waterloo.

Representing private sector interests in the initiative, directors and CEOs from the Royal Bank of Canada, Bayer Canada, and Communitech attended and judged the students’ final presentations, along the government representatives. The Open Data team from Ontario Public Service also attended the presentations, tweeting throughout with plenty of enthusiasm for the students’ work.

The Master of Global Governance team won first place for their work on the Region of Waterloo’s recent Community Wellbeing Survey. Second place went to an MPS team who mined data on correlations between education level and gender pay gaps. And a team of Economics students placed third for their work on patenting access for smaller business and startups.

Hackathons such as this recent Waterloo example are also efficient, adds Sen. “The Canadian data deficit can be reduced through events such as Datafest, and at the same time they bring needs and skills together with collaboration between government, universities, and students ready to fill the data analysis skills gap.”

A few findings

Q. How successful are Canadians in collaborating with foreign inventors to develop new inventions

A. According to a team of sociology graduate students, we’ve been getting worse and worse since the 1990s.

Q. Are children in low-income areas more likely to have lower language, cognitive development and communication skills? 

A. A team of MPS students found that 39% of children in low income, single-parent families are at risk of lower communication skills.

Q. Do employees in science and technology sectors earn more than other Canadian occupations?

A. Yes. The wage premium is substantial and increasing, says a team of psychology students -- although there are big differences between provinces.

student team sit in row in audience

MPS 2nd place winning team.

A version of this story is also published on Waterloo Stories.

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