Obama's Data Scientist Runs Social Good Program

Initiative Out of University of Chicago Lets Students Apply Their Data-Related Skills to Society's Pressing Issues

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Rayid Ghani
Rayid Ghani
Political campaigns determine who runs government, but can campaign experience help navigate policy for health care, education and other big issues affecting society? Rayid Ghani, chief scientist for the most sophisticated, data-driven presidential campaign thus far -- President Barack Obama's re-election bid -- hopes so.

His latest initiative is happening in the president's adopted hometown of Chicago. The University of Chicago's Computation Institute and Harris School of Public Policy is accepting applicants for a summer fellowship program that Mr. Ghani is spearheading. The "Data Science for Social Good" program will allow 35 to 45 students, most of them graduate-level, to apply their knowledge of statistics, data-mining, machine learning, computer science and other data-related skill sets to society's pressing issues.

"My goal is to figure out how you help a lot of people by working on big data and analytics directed toward large social problems," said Mr. Ghani, naming public safety, health care and education among them. Program fellows will pair with mentors starting June 1 to kick off what Mr. Ghani hopes to eventually become a larger, yearlong program.

In addition to seeking applicants, the school is evaluating potential nonprofit or government-related projects that encompass large data sets. "We're working directly with the organizations that will be very much involved over the summer," he said, adding that he could not name any of the organizations under consideration.

Like many of the Obama campaign team's key data and technology staffers, Mr. Ghani hails from the corporate world. He worked in research and analytics at Accenture for 10 years until he joined Obama for America in July 2011.

Following the election, corporate marketers have hoped to gain knowledge from the Obama data team. However, Mr. Ghani sees distinct differences between the way corporate and political marketers operate, and how their target audiences think. "They don't have that urgency that we did," he said of corporate marketers. "The people we were able to [attract] were extremely motivated and dedicated. ... Passion makes a difference and is hard to replicate."

Mr. Ghani anticipates that the bulk of his time will be spent at the university, but he has hung a new shingle in the startup world, having co-founded Edgeflip with fellow Obama team members Matthew Rattigan and Kit Rodolfa. Edgeflip is a social-media tech outfit that will update the targeted Facebook sharing tools used by Obama 2012.

"When we were at the campaign we sort of noticed a few things that we needed," said Mr. Ghani. "We needed a tool that can help us do outreach in a more targeted way."

Edgeflip co-founder Mr. Rattigan said the startup's platform for social-media advocacy will stand out because of the analytics behind it. "It's more kind of bringing some academic research and applying it to nonprofits," he said. Mr. Rattigan was hired by Mr. Ghani to serve as an analyst in the Obama 2012 campaign's analytics group. Mr. Rodolfa worked with both on various projects during the 2012 season.

Edgeflip was formed in January and is planning pilot efforts in the next few months. But not just any client will do -- it's seeking organizations with relatively robust data sets and sophisticated resources and staff. "We're finding a situation where we could be really helpful," said Mr. Rattigan. Either way, expect the company to serve progressive and left-leaning causes and organizations. Edgeflip is hiring developers now.

"It's not a partisan organization, but we certainly have very strong feelings toward who uses it," said Mr. Ghani.

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