Turning data into meaningful policy ideas: MPS Policy Datafest 2020

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Master of Public Service (MPS) program hosted the second annual Policy Datafest last week with more than 70 graduate students digging into public datasets to extract meaningful narratives and recommend policies for positive change.

With data gathered from Statistics Canada or provided by specific governmental departments, each team was given a critical question about Canadian social, economic, and environmental conditions. Teams had 24 hours to perform analysis and synthesize their findings and then present insights and actions relevant to policymakers.

Along with students from MPS and other Arts graduate programs, competitors this year included graduate students from the faculties of Engineering and Mathematics.

five-member Datafest grad student team smile in group pose
The Master of Public Service (MPS) first-place winning team addressed Indigenous economic development and proposed a Wild Foods Act that promotes autonomy and respect for land rights. From left to right: David Arjas, Sarah McMaster, Nick Johnston, Tanzeel Fatima, Gaurav Dhanda

“All the participants really dove into the competition and the presentations of their findings were both entertaining and impactful,” says Professor Anindya Sen, MPS director and founder of Datafest. “With some tremendous results for Arts, the top three teams were MPS in first and third positions and a team from psychology placed second.”

Sen explains that the objective is to bring contemporary policy questions faced by different levels of government to the attention of graduate students who are skilled in data analytics and have the ability to extract meaningful policy narratives from datasets.

The first-place winning team of MPS students examined economic disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers in Canada.

“The data we received included income for youth (aged 15-24) and adults (aged 25-54) for non-Indigenous and Indigenous populations,” explains Sarah McMaster, the team’s captain. “We also reviewed the literature and collected additional variables to determine any potential relationships such as employment rate and GDP. We found that Indigenous populations are overrepresented in sectors (such as natural resources and skilled trades) that are more susceptible to business cycle dips in GDP.”

According to her team’s presentation, a 10 per cent decrease in GDP leads to a 12 per cent decrease in weekly wages for Indigenous Canadians. “That is a loss of $244 monthly for Indigenous youth,” stated one of their slides.

“We recognize that a five-minute presentation will not sufficiently solve all of the issues surrounding this topic,” says Sarah, “but we highlighted that we want to provide Indigenous populations with economic development opportunities that promote autonomy while respecting their land rights. To do so, we proposed the implementation of the Wild Foods Act, which would allow Indigenous populations to have exclusive access to commercial sale of traditional/country foods. The literature highlighted that by not including Indigenous populations in economic development opportunities, Canada is actually forgoing about $27.7 billion in additional revenue, so it’s a major issue impacting all populations.”

Students present their findings at Datafest
The second-place winning team from Psychology led by Mona Zhu present their recommendations at Datafest. 

The second-placing team of psychology students examined socio-economic status and early childhood developmental skills. And the third-placing MPS team analyzed copyright infringement in Canada with the rise of digital technologies. Videos of team presentations are available to view.

The theatre for Datafest 2020 presentations on February 28 held a capacity crowd comprised of student teams, faculty, staff and 11 invited judges including Associate Deputy Ministers, Chief Data Officers, and the Head of Data Analytics at RBC, who generously sponsored Datafest again this year.

“My teammates and I found Datafest an excellent opportunity to learn from other disciplines and to contribute to evidence informed policy decisions,” Sarah added. “Not only were we provided with an amazing experience to highlight our data analysis and policy storytelling skillset, we also had fun along the way!”