Somewhere between the harrowing, rush-hour escape from Mountain View, CA and the picture I snapped with a stats legend in Pittsburgh, PA, I caught a glimpse of America’s data landscape.
As a participant in the inaugural Millennial Trains Project, I traveled by rail to visit seven cities in ten days, exploring innovative data initiatives and emerging policy concerns with government, industry and academic leaders.
I will be sharing some interviews and blog posts from the trip over the coming weeks. In the meantime, here is a summary of the highlights.
- Met with Yelp at their headquarters to talk about their Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification (LIVES) initiative, in which the company is partnering with health departments of major cities to ingest restaurant health inspection data.
- Learned about UC Berkeley’s new online Masters in Data Science offering from the Dean of the School of Information.
- Met with Code for America for a deep dive into the community-building and norm-creating aspects of civic hacking events.
- Attended a presentation on some of Microsoft Research’s nascent structured web search technologies and mobile education platform.
- Visited UC Berkeley’s Center for Innovation Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and discussed ways open data can improve democratic governance.
- Talked mobile app development and the importance of versatile platforms with mobile services firm DreamFactory.
Salt Lake City
- Talked about the future of data centers with secure data storage firm Space Monkey.
- Spoke with a legal scholar about the barriers to open access and the vision of research data sharing.
- Mulled over the cultural obstacles to data-driven philanthropy with Arabella Advisors.
- Chatted with Ancestry.com and learned what it was like to develop ad-hoc parallel computing solutions before the advent of Hadoop.
- Brainstormed the implications of data-driven private equity with a local VC.
- Spoke with the founder of one of the earliest private cloud storage providers about how managers can age gracefully in the face of new technology.
- Attended a pitch session featuring a crafty, signal processing solution to water infrastructure decay.
- Talked data anonymization policy at UC Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons think tank.
- Learned about a refreshingly disciplined app contest being planned in Colorado’s Department of State.
- Got a lesson on government applications of Lean & Agile methodology (PDF) from Colorado’s Chief Performance Officer.
- Talked to local nonprofit leaders at Built in Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership about the quantitative side of their urban and business development strategies.
- Met with a top actuary at a major insurance firm to discuss innovative data initiatives in auto insurance and the demand for more granular data in property insurance.
- Attended the University of Nebraska’s 24th annual conference for data users, featuring talks on new data releases from crime to healthcare to labor.
- Met with Chicago’s Director of Analytics to discuss the city’s developer community and data integration strategy, and brainstormed the steps other cities might take to adapt Chicago’s successful model.
- Got a crash course on the major forces in Chicago’s data scene from Smart Chicago, and learned about some of the data-driven startups it has supported.
- Learned how urbanists at the Metropolitan Planning Council are mapping city data to prioritize civic infrastructure projects.
- Took a detailed look at some cutting-edge applied statistics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where one professor is working to marry predictive modeling with statistical significance testing.
- Visited a sensor-rich office environment where CMU researchers are designing a system to help office workers behave in energy-efficient ways.
- Spoke with another CMU professor about data and code sharing for research reproducibility, as well as sophisticated models for teacher evaluation.
- Talked with a civil engineer at CMU about sensor data standardization and his ideal vision for a two-way smart grid.
- Began synthesizing everything I learned into key policy insights.
The cities I visited offered a couple of major lessons.
First was the importance of a strong executive in the development of a metropolitan or statewide data science community. In cities like Chicago and Oakland, the mayors have been extremely proactive about creating positions for data management officials and giving their blessings to civic hacking events. A well-crafted executive order may be all that’s standing between a city and its dormant developer community.
Second, stakeholders in several cities stressed the importance of convening; the easiest way to foster a healthy civic data infrastructure may simply be ensuring that local developers are acquainted both with one another and with government staffers and locally-minded nonprofits. Even if a hackathon doesn’t produce many useful apps, it can still be an extremely effective way to introduce and encourage collaboration between people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other.