Celebrating a new generation of data-powered policy analysts

The Max Bell School of Public Policy co-organized a closing event for the PODS Summer Program, celebrating the fellows and highlighting the policy issues they tackled this summer.

On August 23, McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy co-organized a showcase event with the Centre for Social and Cultural Data Science to mark the end of the Policy & Data Science (PODS) Summer Program that ran from June to August of this year. Hosted by lead sponsor BDC Capital, the event was held in honour of seven hard-working arts students who were selected to participate in the program’s inaugural year from 250 applicants. The celebration brought together students, program organizers, and sponsors as well as participating internship organizations, to mark the success of the program and highlight the real-world policy issues that students tackled over the summer.

The event was MC’ed by Dr. Derek Ruths, Director of Centre for Social and Cultural Data Science, and Dr. Nicholas King, Director of the PODS Program. Both underlined the importance of this innovative program that aims to meet the demand for technologically literate policymakers with policy-relevant data analysis skills and addresses the need for more interdisciplinary opportunities for students.

With little to no knowledge of programming, data science or analysis and after only one month of training in R, participating students undertook a relevant policy and data analysis internship at Montreal-based organizations where they used data mining and analysis skills to answer an important real-world policy question posed by these organizations.

Fellows took center stage during the showcase event to share their experiences and present their projects to those in attendance. PODS Fellow Marine Colon de Franciosi, who is wrapping up her final semester in Economics and International Development Studies at McGill, interned at Laboratoire d'Innovation Urbaine de Montreal. She used spatial density analysis — which looks at geographical patterns by socio-economic area — to help the city of Montreal identify service gaps and underserved areas.

“Before my internship, I had no idea how to work with spatial data. I had to learn how to use all these new tools and techniques for geo-spatial analysis and came to realize how important spatial-data is in economic and social science research. 80% of data is spatial, is of great value, but is still underused by governments,” she said.

In front of family and friends, fellows explained how rewarding the PODS program was, and how it has both opened their eyes to the power of data-analysis and what these new skills may bring in their future careers.

Emma Ebowe, PODS fellow and former McGill student with a degree in German studies and Political Science, hopes to pursue a career in the field of welfare policy. She spent the summer interning at Nexalogy, a social media analytics company. She analyzed twitter data, specifically white supremacist hate tweets which were generated post Trump's comments on the travel ban. Emma studied the differences between Canada and the rest of the world and found that Twitter biographies were predictive of racism. While questions over what counts as “racist” frequently arises in this area of research, Emma explained that computational analysis is becoming a tool that helps resolve some of this ambiguity.

The PODS program had a significant impact on all fellows, each discovering the power of data-driven analysis. Dexter Docherty, a PODS fellow who is currently conducting archival research with Dr. Cindy Blackstock into the history of the school of Social Work, tackled cannabis legalization. He interned at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, focusing on edibles and the black market. During his final presentation, he concluded by sharing the benefits of the PODS program.

“The people who are doing important human rights and activism work don’t have the data literacy skills that this program was able to provide. This program made it really clear to me that there’s a space for people like us to make a serious contribution,” he said.

Aliya Allen-Valley’s passion for health policy is what brought her to the PODS summer program. A recent graduate from McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Development Studies, Aliya interned at the McGill Observatory on Health and Social Services Reforms (MOHSSR). The PODS program introduced her to a new group of people and pusher her out of her comfort zone.

"It was an amazing opportunity. I met great people. I used to be scared of numbers and still kind of am but realize I can use them to impact policy which is so important,” she said.

Based on the success of this program, Chris Ragan, Director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy, reaffirmed his hope to eventually integrate elements of PODS into the school's teaching programs.

The Max Bell School is set to launch a Master of Public Policy program this Fall with a cohort of 30 students starting in September 2019, offering an inter-disciplinary approach that prepares students for the real world and challenges the conventional ways of teaching public policy.

To read more about the 2018 PODS Fellows and to learn more about their projects, visit: mcgill.ca/maxbellschool/podsprogram

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