Daniel Diermeier

Daniel Diermeier joined Chicago Harris as dean September 1, 2014. (Photography by Andrew Nelles)

Data science meets public policy

Chicago Harris dean Daniel Diermeier discusses the emergence of data-driven public policy and the training necessary for the next generation of leaders.

As government decision making becomes more data driven, issues of data use, data sharing, transparency, and accountability have become increasingly important from both a public policy and a technological perspective. This intersection of data science and public policy is an exciting development in the policy world. While the idea of data-driven public policy is certainly not new, datafication—the ability to transform nontraditional information sources such as text, images, and transactional records into data—has allowed quantitative analysis to penetrate the policy process more deeply than ever before. Concurrently, the growing capacity to acquire and analyze data in real time has fueled the demand by policy makers for increased access to data and evidence-based solutions.

Realizing the potential social benefits associated with the ability to collect, share, and analyze massive amounts of government data requires individuals trained in both public policy and computer science—an area where there is currently a tremendous scarcity of talent. The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has taken a leadership role in addressing this critical shortage. By leveraging our historical strength in quantitative policy analysis and strong crosscampus partnerships, Chicago Harris has become an epicenter of education and scholarship at the intersection of data science and public policy.

The new master’s degree in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) is a first-of-its-kind program jointly run by Chicago Harris and the Department of Computer Science. Combining a traditional public policy curriculum with computer science training—including topics such as programming, databases, and machine learning—MSCAPP provides students with the hard and soft skills needed to fill the talent gap in public-sector data analytics.

On the research side, Chicago Harris has joined with the Computation Institute to significantly enhance the University’s reach in the emerging field of computation and public policy. We have established the Center for Data Science and Public Policy, led by associate professor Christopher Berry, AM’98, PhD’02, and senior fellow Rayid Ghani, chief data scientist for the Obama 2012 presidential campaign. The center supports scholarly research and facilitates outreach activities, with a particular emphasis on creating opportunities for faculty and students to apply their skills. Under Ghani’s leadership, the center hosted the second annual Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship, which brought computer science graduate students from across the country to Chicago to work on problems with social impact. The inaugural senior fellowship in urban science allowed us to attract Brett Goldstein, SM’05, former chief information officer for the City of Chicago. This fall Goldstein spearheaded the first-ever Urban Technology Forum, which brought together leaders in municipal data and innovation to discuss the increasingly critical role of data and computational methods in city governance. He also helped launch Plenario, an open-access platform that allows researchers to acquire and analyze an enormous trove of public data.

Chicago Harris was founded on the belief that rigorous, quantitative research and education is the best guide for public policy. Twenty-five years after the school as we know it opened its doors, Chicago Harris continues to build on its rich legacy with initiatives like this. We at Harris share a common belief that data, properly used and understood, can help policy leaders make better decisions in service to society.

As more data become available, government, nonprofit organizations, and even the private sector will need more talented professionals who understand the many ways data science and public policy skills can combine to improve results. Through the MSCAPP program and the Center for Data Science and Public Policy, we are opening a new chapter in developing the next generation of data-savvy policy leaders.