SIAM News Blog

Leveraging the Value of Data Science on Baltimore’s Socioeconomic Landscape

By Jillian Kunze

Ashley Johnson opened her minisymposium presentation at the 2020 SIAM Annual Meeting with a quote from businesswoman Leila Janah: “Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not.” Johnson, who works at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, described the pervasive poverty in the East Baltimore, Md. neighborhood adjacent to John Hopkins; the median household income there is just $18,000 per year. This stark divide served as inspiration for Cloud-Based Data Science Plus (CBDS+), a data science training program that seeks to provide disadvantaged youth in Baltimore with the skills and support necessary to find success in this flourishing field. 

Johnson affirmed that there are many talented people in Baltimore who are hungry for knowledge and opportunities but have difficulty accessing them. In addition, a major digital divide exists between those who can use computers and internet at home and those who cannot. CBDS+ hopes to address these problems while also tackling nationwide issues in the field of data science. “Data scientist” is a top-ranked occupation in today’s job market, but there is a shortage of talent in the industry as well as a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, companies often list unrealistic and superfluous qualifications when looking to hire data scientists and ask for much more than they actually need, which can make it difficult for some candidates to break into the field. 

CBDS+ identifies talented youth in Baltimore with the help of two non-profit community partners—the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) and HeartSmiles—and facilitates the enrollment and completion of a data science training program for participants. The organization recruits Baltimore residents between the ages of 18 to 24 who have a high school diploma or GED. Recruits must be registered members of the Youth Opportunity program through HEBCAC, which one can sign up for fairly easily, and have an interest in computers and programming. These are the only major requirements, as the initiative is intended to be as inclusive and accessible as possible.

CBDS+ participants receive free laptops as well as a stipend; taking the course is a similar time investment to holding a part-time job, so program organizers did not want this commitment to hinder participation. The curriculum consists of 12 online courses that are self-led and completed independently. Participants can access online support from the in-house data science team and attend in-person office hours, which are held twice a week. Dedicated case management also helps participants address any difficult situations they encounter during the program. 

The set of 12 courses on data science skills offered by CBDS+.
The first course in CBDS+ provides background information on general computer use, so that those without technology experience still feel comfortable enrolling. The subsequent courses cover both hard and soft skills in data science and are intended to offer participants a holistic education and meaningful, transferable skills. Towards the end of the courses, program organizers provide job search assistance and work hard to find as many leads as possible. 

The impact of CBDS+ has been very positive — program graduates are proud, excited, and further motivated to pursue careers in data science. They develop skilled, marketable talents in a field with a lot of growth potential, which will consequently lead to greater income and housing stability. Out of the program’s eight total participants thus far, six began new jobs right after graduation, one is continuing in a job she held before the initiative, and one received an offer that is unfortunately on hold due to COVID-19. CBDS+ also impacts the data science industry as a whole by increasing its diversity, working to mitigate the talent shortage, and broadening companies’ views of employees who did not pursue a traditional track. 

In January 2020, CBDS+ was temporarily suspended to reassess and refocus with the addition of some new employees. Unfortunately, that suspension is now continuing indefinitely due to COVID-19. But the CBDS+ team does have a new project in the works: a guided pro-social network called DataTrail, which combines parts of CBDS+ with elements of Facebook and LinkedIn and adds a social justice component. The continuing work of CBDS+ will continue to help underserved people gain data science skills and make a positive change to their futures. 

   Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News.


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