Rhizans in the World: Solving Social Problems with Data

Rhiza Data Scientist Amy Hepner talks opportunities & risks of using data science for social progress

Can predictive analytics be applied to social problems for the betterment of all? As attendees to Code & Supply’s recent talk on “The Analytics of Social Progress: When Machine Learning Meets Human Problems” found out, it may not be as simple as you’d think.

Delivered by Rhiza Data Scientist, Amy Hepner, this powerful talk examined the applications of machine learning on social issues, like identifying high school students who may not graduate on time and mobilizing community action through online engagement.


Amy’s talk topic struck a nerve. The event attracted over 80 people, who varied widely in age, race, background experience and technical knowledge. Amy demystified the “black box” of machine learning models, simplifying the complexities of statistical algorithms and presenting the true challenge of applying math to social problems: human bias.


Amy’s discussion illuminated the potential limitations associated with approaching social problems from a data science perspective, suggesting a series of basic questions for teams to ask themselves while doing this work. The bottom line: learn the math enough to interpret results correctly, understand the history and story of the social problem, and include people who will be affected by any work in the solution-making process. To learn more, read Amy’s full slides on her website.  


This talk came from a personal place. Having worked previously as a math teacher and community organizer, Amy saw firsthand the potential and promise of using data to address social issues. She pursued this vision by getting her MS in Statistics from OSU and becoming a 2015 Data Science for Social Good Fellow. As a DSSG fellow, Amy worked alongside of nonprofit and public sector organizations to understand the impact and role of data science in society.


The talk was hosted by Code & Supply, a local organization dedicated to fostering a supportive, dynamic tech community in Pittsburgh through events, workshops and other forms of community engagement. Be sure to check out the Code & Supply meetup page to learn more about future events.


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