back to news May 23, 2014

Statistics PhD Student Explores Putting Data Science to Work for the Social Good

Andrew Landgraf is in an enviable position. He can do math AND analyze big data—very well. This should shorten the length of his job search considerably when he receives his PhD in statistics in the upcoming academic year. His only dilemma might be in choosing from the many areas of human endeavor desperate for his skills.

Landgraf, who has an undergraduate degree from Ohio State in actuarial science and worked in that field for a while, said, “I’ve always liked to do math, from the time I was quite young. And I especially like data science, which allows me to blend my statistical ability with computer-science skills. So, this led me back to Ohio State’s statistics graduate program. I like the idea of being able to apply statistics to have tangible effects on real-world problems.”

While Landgraf has not settled precisely on the arena where he might want to put those skills to work, he knew it would be a good idea to expand his options.

He heard about the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship Summer Program at the University of Chicago and thought it seemed like "a unique opportunity to explore something I would like to do—one that I might not be able to have after I graduate.”

He filled out the paperwork that included an essay on why he was interested in improving the social good and was one of 48 Fellows chosen from around the country to participate.

This three-month program, initiated in 2013, is basically an internship designed for aspiring data scientists to work on data mining, machine learning, big data and data science projects that have social impact.

Landgraf heads to Chicago on June 2 to begin work.

“We will be working in small teams, taking on real-world problems, analyzing dozens of datasets; in such areas as education, health, energy and transportation,” Landgraf said, “and we will be working closely with professionals from government and nonprofit organizations.”

Actually, each team is led by full-time mentors who serve as project leaders and technical advisors. They help the Fellows brainstorm ideas and manage the relationship between the teams of Fellows and the project partners.

“They provided a list of potential projects and partners in a wide range of categories that include nonprofits and philanthropy, energy, environment, transparency, health, international development, public transportation, emergency response, education, food waste, urban economic development, social services and workforce development,” Landgraf said.

“And while I do not know yet which project I might be assigned to, I do know that I would be happy to work on any of them.“

Whatever that project might be, Landgraf will be working in a fast-paced environment, applying his exceptional coding and analytics skills, collaborating with the other Fellows to provide possible solutions and learning from decision-makers on the front lines of public policy.

The program is led by Rayid Ghani from the Computation Institute & Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and former chief data scientist of the 2012 Obama campaign.

It is organized by an interdisciplinary team from the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

Landgraf already has some major street cred for data analytics skills. He was one of a team of five Ohio State statistics graduate students who won the 2013 national Capital One Data Modeling Competition late last year.

--Sandi Rutkowski, Arts and Sciences Communications