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CIPA to integrate data science into its curriculum

The Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) will revise its curriculum to ensure that all students graduate with proficiency in data science – a change they hope will help fill critical gaps in government, nonprofits and industry and ensure that policy decisions around the world are made with the best evidence available.

“Data is going to be such an integral part of our practice that everyone should have foundational training in the technology behind data analytics,” said Thomas O’Toole, Ph.D. ’16, executive director of CIPA, part of the College of Human Ecology. “Students need to understand the opportunities and the challenges, from both an ethical and analytical perspective, so that when they graduate from our program they will all be intelligent consumers of data.”

O'Toole, along with co-authors Maria Fitzpatrick, associate professor of policy analysis and management and director of CIPA, and Elizabeth Day, assistant director for policy engagement for Cornell Project2Gen and an engaged learning associate with CIPA, outlined a plan for incorporating data proficiency into CIPA’s program in a recent white paper.

The researchers were awarded $10,000 for the paper, “Summary of Proposed Approach at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Affairs,” by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration.

They will use the funds to add new instruction in this area, likely including partnerships with researchers in the Faculty of Computing and Information Science and at Cornell Tech, and centers such as the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research that are actively using data to inform social science research.

“Data has the power to transform how decision-making is done in our society,” said Fitzpatrick, also associate director of data for evidence-based policy and Milman fellow at the Bronfenbrenner Center. “We want to provide all our students with fluency in some of the technical aspects of data – where it comes from, who is represented in the data and how you can connect data of different forms and from different sources. And that includes ethical dimensions, such as confidentiality and privacy.”

Currently, CIPA students can choose to concentrate in data science, but those choices are made on an individual basis. With the changes, the researchers said they hope to build on Cornell’s strengths in computing, information science and data science to integrate these skills throughout their program so all students gain data proficiency.

As part of their study, the researchers interviewed groups of CIPA alumni – some of whom work for the federal government, state governments, nonprofits or in the private sector – about which skills are lacking in the field, and what they’d like to see added to the curriculum.

“We asked, ‘What are you seeing in practice that you think was missing in our curriculum when you were a graduate student?’” O’Toole said. “We did an event in New York City a couple of months ago where every one of the alumni in the interview said: Data analytics.”

Other public affairs programs across the country are similarly lacking in integrated data science curricula, the researchers said, and they hope their plan, once completed, can be applied elsewhere.

Currently, the federal government lacks personnel with expertise in data analytics – partly because people with these skills are often lured away by the private sector.

Around a third of CIPA graduates take jobs in the government, where policy experts “know what the potential is – they hear about data analytics, they hear about machine learning,” O’Toole said. “But they don’t really know from an applied perspective how they could put it into practice or even recruit the right people into their agencies.”

Day, who previously worked as a fellow at the Society for Research in Child Development Congressional Policy in the U.S. Senate, said federal employees have access to a wealth of data but need better skills to take advantage of it.

This spring, she plans to incorporate data science and data visualization into her class, Bridging the Divide, where each semester students tackle topics based on interviews with state legislators, such as criminal justice or supporting vulnerable families, and share their final reports with the legislators on a trip to Albany.

“It’s a dual benefit – the legislators will get great data tools to help them understand what’s happening, and the students will learn more about data visualization techniques,” Day said. “Learning how to navigate the data is really important for better understanding the impact of programs and policies.”

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Rebecca Valli