The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Search Google Appliance


Graduate students spend summer working for the common good

This summer, nine UMass Amherst graduate students will put their data science skills and experience to work helping organizations measure their carbon footprint, detect misinformation in public forums, analyze healthcare data on veterans, and automatically identify objects in images. The nine fellows participating in the Data Science for the Common Good (DS4CG) program, administered by the Center for Data Science (CDS), hail from diverse backgrounds, but all are passionate about using their skills for the public good. 


DS4CG is a summer program that matches graduate students with partner organizations to work together on a project that serves the public interest. Dr. Matthew Rattigan, technical director of community initiatives for CDS, is overseeing the program and has high hopes for its success. “In addition to the more immediate goals of supporting students and promoting the public interest, we hope to help diversify the field of data science by expanding the types of projects we take on.”


Students work directly with the partner organizations over 12 weeks, mentored by CDS staff and professional data science volunteers. In addition to their project work, students receive training on communication, ethics, and conflict resolution, as well as technical skills. This year’s partner organizations are the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), AuCoDe, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the UMass Classics department.


AMC is one of the leading science-based environmental conservation organizations on the East Coast and has ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint. The AMC project focuses on developing and testing new methods of measuring and predicting carbon emissions associated with guest travel and operation of AMC facilities, such as lodges, camps, cabins, and staff quarters. The fellows will develop models and visualizations of guest usage and staff operations, and implement prototype software modules that support decision-making related to energy savings, enabling AMC to both reduce and offset their carbon footprint in a data-driven manner.


AuCoDe is a startup company that automatically detects and analyzes online controversies. The AuCoDe team will explore applications of controversy detection technology on misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic found in public forums. By examining news coverage and public social media discourse using AuCoDe’s controversy detection technology, the DS4CG team will identify signals to detect, track, and understand the dynamics of coronavirus-related misinformation online and better inform the public.


The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operates one of the largest integrated healthcare systems in the United States. While it maintains a large repository of electronic health records, this raw data does not lend itself to analysis and research purposes. The VA project will focus on developing and validating algorithms to automatically extract characteristics and features from the data, such as diseases, treatments, and biomarkers. The project may also involve processing narrative data from physician notes. This work will help the VA generate insights into the treatment and care of patients.


Associate Professor Eric Poehler of the UMass Classics department has thousands of photographic images of frescoed walls in Pompeii, the ancient city that was buried after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago. Each image has captions describing the objects included and other features. The Pompeii team will develop models to identify objects in the images, and then search images for objects that may not be mentioned in the captions. The team will also work on detecting unlabeled objects in images such as scaffolding or unwanted signage. The project results will vastly increase researchers’ ability to analyze and understand the archeology of Pompeii.


The nine DS4CG fellows represent diverse backgrounds and academic interests, from sustainability science to electronics engineering to machine learning. They hail from five countries across five continents, but one of the things they have in common is the desire to make a positive difference with their skills and expertise. Nazanin Jafari, a College of Information and Computer Sciences doctoral student, said, “My goals for this program are to enhance my skill set in data science by applying my academic knowledge to real-world problems, gain practical experiences by working in a team of professionals, and build connections in the industry. But most importantly, I want to have a positive impact on nonprofits and organizations that benefit the common good.”


CDS Executive Director Brant Cheikes is optimistic about this year’s cohort and projects. “During this time of unprecedented uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these nine students have chosen to spend their summer using their data science skills to serve the public good,” said Cheikes. “We look forward to working with them to develop their skillset and talents on these real-life projects. In the years to come, the world will need trained and publicly-minded data scientists like these more than ever.”


The DS4CG program runs from May 26 through August 14.