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 Anindya Sen, professor of Economics, 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 MPS 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.”

Datafest 2019 student participants

Sen collaborated with federal, provincial and regional government departments and agencies to develop the hacking event. Datafest was held over two days with 14 teams of students from six arts graduate programs, including MPS, Economics, English Language and Literature, Global Governance, Psychology and Sociology. Teams were provided specific datasets and questions about Canadian social, economic and environmental conditions. Then it was up to the students to dive into the data to find 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.

Hackathons, such as this recent Waterloo example, are proving effective. “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.”

So, what did the data analysis reveal?

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

A: According to one 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 per cent 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, though there are big differences between provinces.

The Global Governance team won first place for their work on the Region of Waterloo’s recent Community Wellbeing Survey data. A Master of Public Service team won second place for digging into the correlations between education level and gender pay gaps and an Economics team placed third for their insights on patenting access for small business and startups.

The Royal Bank of Canada sponsored MPS Policy Datafest, with leaders from public and private sectors judging the students’ work. Government partners that provided the datasets and questions include Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) Canada, 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.

Watch the MPS Policy Datafest final presentations.