‘Community of the eager’: Pitt’s Year of Data and Society plans for spring


Image via University of Pittsburgh

The 2021-22 Year of Data and Society logo.

By Elizabeth Primrose, Staff Writer

As a political science and economics major, Brennan Conway said he’s excited for an upcoming Year of Data and Society virtual event about Census data on Jan. 28.

“As a poli-sci guy, I find redistricting and gerrymandering fascinating, so I’m excited about an upcoming event discussing how Census data is used in the reapportionment of congressional seats,” Conway, a member of the Year of Data and Society steering committee, said.

Conway, a senior, also said data isn’t reserved for just STEM-related fields, but for “every field of study.”

“As data and data science becomes more integral to our academic community and the broader world, there’s never been a better time to step back and think about how we can use these incredible tools to create a positive and sustainable social impact,” Conway said.

The Office of the Provost identifies Pitt’s “Year of” theme for the upcoming academic year at the end of every school year. Provost Ann Cudd announced last April that the 2021-22 academic year would be the Year of Data and Society, and after a semester of activities, more initiatives are planned for the spring semester.

Eleanor Mattern, chair of the Year of Data and Society steering committee — which helps plan events related to this year’s theme — said the Year of Data and Society initiative hosts events that explore socially responsible data practices and the societal implications of data and its uses.

In Cudd’s April announcement, she said the Year of Data and Society would build on work by the University’s Data Science Task Force, which published a report with recommendations on how to advance data science at Pitt, such as the emphasis on ethics and the social impact and responsibility of data usage.

According to Sera Linardi — who was on the DTSF and is now a part of the Year of Data and Society steering committee — the task force recommended building a community to address data’s role in certain issues.

“One of the major recommendations from the DTSF was to build a community of the eager — a transdisciplinary community of students, faculty, and staff inside and outside of Pitt that are passionate about an issue and the role of data in addressing that issue,” Linardi, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said.

Linardi said she started the Grief to Action initiative in the summer of 2020, which is a community with more than 170 volunteers that focus on racial justice issues.

According to Linardi, the Grief to Action initiative launched two platforms this year. The first was 412Connect, a Black-owned Business scavenger hunt, at the Year of Data and Society kickoff event on Sept. 8. The group presented the second platform, a website which helps navigate the over 100 police departments in Allegheny County, in a Year of Data and Society talk on Nov. 19.

“The Year of Data and Society theme was a perfect fit for us to tell a story about how it is possible to nourish a diverse community at Pitt to create digital tools to take practical action that directly impacts race and social justice in our own neighborhood,” Linardi said.

Mattern, also a teaching assistant professor at the School of Computing and Information and the director of the school’s Sara Fine Institute, said the initiative spotlighted Pitt projects and hosted external speakers this past fall with both hybrid and virtual modalities.

One event hosted Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Catherine D’Iganzio to speak on her book Data Feminism — which she co-authored — which explores biases in data technologies that are used every day. Jonathan Schwabish and Alice Feng, other external speakers from the fall, also presented on how to take a more purposeful approach regarding diversity, equity and inclusion to data visualization.

According to Mattern, in the spring semester, the Year of Data and Society steering committee will continue to host events that explore societal impacts of data and its uses. For instance, the event on Census data later this month looks at how data is used in deciding boundaries of legislative districts.

​​Lisa Parker, who serves on the Year of Data and Society steering committee and appropriations committee, said she is excited for upcoming projects that create discussions about the ethical and social considerations of data science.

Laura Levitt from Temple University will present a virtual lecture on Jan. 24 discussing art as an opening that allows for the opportunity to consider the lingering effects of trauma and loss, illness and carrying. Also, Emily Maloney will give a virtual reading of her book on Feb. 16, Cost of Living, where she describes how personal experiences can provide data for broader social concerns.

“I’m excited about those things with Laura Levitt and Emily Maloney,” Parker said. “They conceptualize data in ways we don’t often think of.”

Mattern said the Year of Data and Society initiative also has a funding opportunity which supports projects and events led by Pitt faculty, students and staff which are connected to the theme.

In the fall semester, the funding supported events such as a Latinx data panel, which was a part of the Latinx Connect 2021 conference. This data panel explored the complexities of data and the Latinx community, the challenges regarding inequitable Latinx data representation, among other topics.

Mattern said the steering committee is looking forward to events of recipients of the funding opportunity this upcoming semester.

“For example, a team is putting together workshops on learning analytics, with the goal of building understanding of the data that is collected through platforms like Canvas and how this data might be used responsibly,” Mattern said.

The steering committee will host an end-of-the-semester celebration which will include a panel of the funding opportunity awardees discussing the sustainability of their projects. Linardi said she thinks this will be an important conversation since one of the biggest challenges in data for social good initiatives is sustainability.

“I really look forward to having a conversation about the potential good these projects could create, the challenges of doing so, how the grant helps, and the larger scale sustainability issue into the future beyond the lifetime of the grant,” Linardi said.