Skip to content

Entire moun­tain ranges of data are growing all around, and they will either bury us or help us climb to new heights of under­standing. It all depends on how we respond.

This was the focus of a four- hour “hackathon” Wednesday night, spon­sored by North­eastern to explore the inter­sec­tion between public policy and Big Data analysis. The event, “Data Sci­ence, Jour­nalism, and the Future of Jus­tice,” was part of HUB­week, a series of more than 100 events that brought together the brightest minds in gov­ern­ment, pri­vate industry, and acad­emia to cel­e­brate inno­va­tion in Boston.

Our goal was to explore the con­ver­gence of data sci­ence in a variety of fields,” said assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism John Wihbey, who hosted the event. He noted that the three pan­elists spe­cialize in rad­i­cally dif­ferent dis­ci­plines, yet all see Big Data as essen­tial in their field.

In the old days, all you needed was three exam­ples and a quote, and you could report a trend,” said Todd Wal­lack of The Boston Globe Spot­light team and a two- time Pulitzer Prize nom­inee. “But today’s readers expect you to back up your sto­ries with a thor­ough analysis of hard data.”

As an example, Wal­lack described the Spot­light team’s efforts to com­bine tra­di­tional reporting and Big Data analysis to expand a story about teacher- on- student sexual abuse at pres­ti­gious pri­vate high schools. By the time they were done, it had grown into a mega- story that involved more than 100 pri­vate schools in New England.

Readers want to know the data,” he said. “They want to know how many and exactly which schools.”

Igor Tulchinsky, left, founder and CEO of WorldQuant, talks with Forbes editor Randall Lane during the HUBweek “hackathon” hosted by Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Igor Tulchinsky, left, founder and CEO of WorldQuant, talks with Forbes editor Ran­dall Lane during the HUB­week “hackathon” hosted by North­eastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/ Northeastern University

Assis­tant pro­fessor Dan O’Brien, an expert in urban studies, ana­lyzes Big Data to dis­cover trends in urban crime and health in order to help cities develop more effec­tive public policy. Com­puter sci­ence assis­tant pro­fessor Michelle Borkin, a spe­cialist in data visu­al­iza­tion, trans­forms com­plex data analysis into visual pat­terns that help guide the work of astronomers and surgeons.

We are approaching 40 zettabytes of data,” she said to illus­trate the sheer enor­mity of the data deluge. “That’s 40 with 20 zeros fol­lowing it.”

With this in mind, more than 60 par­tic­i­pants launched into the hackathon itself—a two- hour endeavor to make sense of one of three moun­tains of raw data. Each data set came from the Boston Police Depart­ment and focused on either crime rates, homi­cide data, or police stop- and- frisk incidents.

In the old days, all you needed was three exam­ples and a quote, and you could report a trend. But today’s readers expect you to back up your sto­ries with a thor­ough analysis of hard data.
— Todd Wal­lack of The Boston Globe Spot­light team and a two-​​​​time Pulitzer Prize nominee

A team led by jour­nalism stu­dent Abby Skelton, MA’18, deter­mined that women are less likely to be stopped- and- frisked than men of their same race. They also found that the dif­fer­ences vary greatly based on race. White women are 29 per­cent less likely to be stopped than white men, while that figure is 21 per­cent for black women and just 5 per­cent for His­panic women.

Another group, led by mechan­ical engi­neering alum Aditya Agrawal, E’16, used the same data­base to deter­mine that while the number of white and black males who were stopped was about the same, action was taken against a much lower per­centage of the black males. Their con­clu­sion: Blacks are far more likely to be stopped without ade­quate cause.

But given the two- hour time limit, the point of the exer­cise was the process, not the results.

This was an oppor­tu­nity for data geeks to meet one another, make con­tacts, and be ener­gized by working in a room full of people who share their inter­ests,” said O’Brien, who counts him­self as a data geek as well. “We want to encourage a col­lab­o­ra­tion between dis­ci­plines and agen­cies. Our goal is to get people excited about using Big Data to gain a deeper under­standing of how cities work.”

Story by Bill Ibelle appeared in news@Northeastern posted on September 30.