The advocacy of regent and former trustee Rayid Ghani, C’99, helped Sewanee gain admission to the Public Interest Technology University Network and to potential grants from the New America Foundation, a “different kind of think tank” dedicated to public problem solving.

After the 2012 presidential election, when Rayid Ghani, C’99, completed his service as chief data scientist for the Obama presidential campaign, he set out to think differently about public service. Several high profile companies and organizations were bidding for his services, but Ghani had other ideas. At a conference for his Data Science for Social Good program, Ghani told the story this way: “I said, ‘Why are we sending our best tech students to improve online advertising and book/movie recommendations? Why don’t we push them toward something useful and start a program that trains and exposes students to how their data and tech skills can have a social impact?’” Since 2013, Ghani has run the Data Science for Social Good program, first from the University of Chicago, and since last summer at Carnegie Mellon University.

Recently, Ghani helped a Sewanee team successfully apply to be part of the Public Interest Technology University Network, a program launched by the New America Foundation, a different kind of think tank dedicated to public problem solving through evidence-based solutions. Impact had a conversation with Ghani about his own arc of achievement in public interest work as well as the possibilities for Sewanee to build an exemplary program. 

Why public interest? What drew you to doing public interest work?

Most of us do what we do because we think it’s important, because we are passionate about it, and because we’re good at it. I think a lot of what I did initially was driven by intellectual curiosity and an interest in solving challenging problems but that eventually turned into thinking about what impact I can have on the world. For anyone thinking about doing public interest work, it comes down to the question of what skills you have to make a positive impact, what percentage of your time do you want to spend on this—whether it is full-time like with a job or if it’s something you do as volunteer, and how close you want to be to the impact you want to have.

Some people choose to do public interest by making a lot of money that they can then use to support financially the projects that interest them. Some people work at a homeless shelter or school or a food bank and have a very direct and first hand impact. What I am doing is trying to strike a balance and be somewhere in the middle. I can help tackle the problems people have (the public interest) directly, but my work is one step removed, where I’m helping organizations through data and technology who in turn directly help people in need.

How will COVID-19 change your work this summer?

We don’t know yet. Since 2013, through the Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship we have been delivering this rich, collaborative, learn-by-doing experience where students from all over the world spend the summer in teams working with governments and nonprofits. The work we do is extremely hands-on and collaborative where we are all learning together. Some of that can happen online. But bringing together people from very diverse backgrounds who have never met each other for a short period of time, to intensely work on problems that are new to all of them and produce useful solutions for a government agency or nonprofit is going to be challenging. We could relax one or more of those constraints and achieve something useful, but given where we are, we’re exploring different options to make this feasible and will see what we end up deciding. 

The same thing is true for the type of teaching I’m doing at Carnegie Mellon. Right now I’m teaching a project-based class with students from the Machine Learning Department and from Public Policy. We do a lot of discussions, use a lot of chalkboards and whiteboards, and have many hands-on workshops. We’re trying to do as much of that online as possible and will learn as the semester goes on how effective online tools are in supporting those activities. Going to online education exposes some important equity issues. If you don’t have adequate broadband in your home or if you’re not in a place where you can turn on video, what kind of learning experience are you going to have? Equity is the biggest worry I have when thinking about moving to online platforms for programs that are synchronous, discussion-heavy, and rely on live video. 

How can Sewanee contribute to the public interest technology space?

Sewanee has the beginnings of a good set-up and with the right motivation, people, and resources, it won’t take a lot for Sewanee to be in a great place to contribute to public interest technology work. Sewanee is obviously not in the same place as a Carnegie Mellon or Georgia Tech, but in some ways that is an advantage. The students aren’t motivated by technology, and hopefully can think of it as a tool to have impact. You have access to problems you can identify, access to people who want to work on solving those problems, access to students who are really dedicated to making a positive difference in the world, and the beginnings of a relationship with a local community where community members trust the University to be a good partner.

If you started by creating a lot of courses focused on technology and data science, I think that would be attracting the wrong sort of students for public interest work. Instead, a place like Sewanee (or any other university) should start by spending time with the local community and local organizations to understand and identify a rich set of problems where data and technology can play a role. Going in this direction allows Sewanee to attract students who care about impact and problem-solving and can then be motivated to learn the data science and technology skills needed to tackle them.