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On a Friday in late June, 24 students gathered to unveil the results from their summer research as part of the Capacity Accelerator Network’s Social Impact Summer Experience. After a two-week intensive training on data science techniques and research methodology, the undergraduate and master’s students were unleashed to work with partner social impact organizations, using their newly acquired data science skills to benefit nonprofits and influence policy. 

The Summer Experience students worked with partner social impact organizations such as RAFI-USA and the Chicago Public Library, researching in small groups and using their data science skills to benefit others and influence policy. Professors and preceptors from the University of Chicago assisted the students in their research, as did professors from the diverse group of Capacity Accelerator Network partner institutions: North Carolina State University, Morehouse College, Howard University, City Colleges of Chicago, Fresno State, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the University of Illinois Chicago.

Each project highlighted the need for data science training as an accessible resource for communities facing complicated problems. The students were pleased with their results, as were their preceptors and facilitators. “During the summer, students applied a variety of data science techniques to address important issues in their communities. Many were also exposed to potential academic paths and careers that they were unaware of prior to participating in the CAN Social Impact Summer Experience,” said Mario Bañuelos, Associate Professor of Mathematics and CAN DSSI Summer Experience Visiting Faculty Co-Director.

The student’s projects and their impacts are summarized below.

Understanding the long term effects of pesticides on disenfranchised communities

Students Isaiah Gonzalez, Shana McDowell, Folasade Fanegan, and Grace Simunek studied the use of pesticides alongside Californians for Pesticide Reform. Using tools from spatial data science and modeling, they investigated years of pesticide and census data, finding that areas with a larger Latino population tended to have more pesticide use, which can lead to higher rates of cancer and acute illness. Simunek shared that she was surprised and disturbed when she learned that pesticides cause cancer and can drift from the areas where they’re applied. She added that, while the government of California regulates pesticide application, pesticide drift is not regulated. Gonzalez added that, as a student from Fresno, this research hits close to home. He described the odor emitted from the fields across the street from his home when they’re sprayed with pesticides. For Gonzalez, this research highlighted the severity of the pesticide problem in California. 

Who benefits in Illinois from state contracts

In partnership with the Illinois Commission on Equity and Inclusion, Eke Agbai, Kennedy Coleman, Joseph Jaiyeola, and Santiago Segura assessed equity around state use of vendors from diverse communities. The Illinois Business Enterprise Program (BEP) encourages state contracts with minorities, women, and people with disabilities. The group mapped the locations of businesses that worked with the state of Illinois; investigated how the number of bids, number of contracts, and contract values varied by area; and looked at how those variables correlated with demographic data. They found that areas where more residents have bachelor’s degrees tend to have more bids and that vendors are clustered around densely populated areas. The tools they built, including models and an interactive map, can be updated as new data are collected. In the future, their research might help the state use their contract funding more strategically.

Book lending and internet access: how Chicago Public Library use differs across neighborhoods

Rajiv Shah, Danielle Hahn, Tasnim Alqudah, and Abby Reynolds worked with the Chicago Public Library (CPL) for their project. They researched how library use varies spatially and temporally, and investigated the relationship between library use and demographic data. The group found that neighborhoods with higher income and employment rates tend to have higher circulation and lower computer use, while neighborhoods with lower income and employment have higher computer use but less circulation. They also found that there are no large differences in average walking time to a library between racial groups. Young people and high school graduates tend to be located in areas closer to libraries, so the researchers suggested that CPL should consider areas with older residents and lower high school graduation rates when deciding where to build new libraries. In the future, the students recommended further research on community perceptions of the value of the library to better target resources where they are desired.

Chicago’s South Side suffers more internet disruptions than other neighborhoods

Ronald Carter Jr., Lizet Casas, Kristen Haddadin, and Moturi Ondeyo used Internet Equity Initiative (IEI) data to study disruptions in Internet service. After a recent major federal investment in broadband access, data that can show us where to prioritize funding is more important than ever. The IEI, one of the Data Science Institute’s research initiatives, placed devices in homes around Chicago and beyond to monitor internet speed and disruption. The Summer Experience Researchers used these data to build an interactive dashboard through which users can investigate differences in Internet disruption across space and time. Using their dashboard, the team found that the South Side of Chicago had the most Internet disruptions in 2022, and Chicago had more anomalies than other cities. Now that the team has learned more about where and when Internet disruptions occur, they suggested further research into the root causes of these anomalies.

When you can’t see an eye care provider

Alongside Preventing Blindness, a national nonprofit based in Chicago, students Adrian Gutierrez, Alex Herrejon, Myles Ndiritu, and Vira Kasprova studied where eye care providers are located and how access varies by region. They contextualized their research by sharing that more than 7 million Americans have permanent vision problems, and more than half of these cases were preventable. Using data from the U.S. census, National Eyecare Provider, and Medicare, the group produced maps and regressions. They concluded that vulnerable populations live fairly close to eye care facilities and most people live in a census tract with some access to vision providers. There doesn’t seem to be a geographic access issue, so they suggested that future research could look at other potential barriers preventing access to eye care.

Grocery chain consolidation: good for the brand, bad for consumers

Kenthia Roberts, David Sampedro, Sebastian Plaza, and Amir Harris worked with RAFI-USA to study the potential impacts of the Kroger/Albertsons grocery store merger. In 2021, nearly 70% of the grocery market was controlled by four brands. Albertsons and Kroger are two of those companies, and their proposed merger would further consolidate and concentrate the market. Focusing on data from 2022, the research team quantified how the merger would increase the newly consolidated company’s market share, decrease consumer choice, and cause the loss of approximately 50,000 jobs. Their study suggests that the merger would help Kroger/Albertsons compete with Costco and Walmart, a potential upside, but would be a bad deal for consumers and farmers. It would especially affect those in rural and micropolitan regions, who are more susceptible to unfair pricing. The researchers concluded that responsible oversight is essential.

The relationships that the Data Science Institute has developed with partner institutions and social impact organizations paid off for the CAN Social Impact Summer Experience cohort. The students developed important new skills in computing, collaboration, and interdisciplinary research. In just a short amount of time, these scientists produced high-impact research and learned about the myriad ways in which data science can be applied to enact social change. Executive Director of the Data Science Institute David Uminsky was pleased with the student’s hard work, stating “It was extraordinary to see the students make such rapid progress on these hard but impactful research problems. I’m grateful for all the partnership organizations that provided such high quality data science projects as well as the faculty from across the CAN network and project mentors who provided great guidance all summer.”