led the creation of the Ebola
Open Data Jam in 2014. A community effort which helped to identify, inventory and classify all open data sources
related to the Ebola outbreak, it provided governments, aid agencies and
researchers with free and open access to valuable open data related to the epidemic
on the platform EbolaData.org.
Varshney is a data ambassador for DataKind, an organization that brings together
leading data scientists with high impact social organizations to better analyze,
model and visualize data in the service of humanity. He has led projects with NGO GiveDirectly and Simpa Networks.
GiveDirectly delivers cash directly to extremely
poor villagers in Kenya and Uganda.
Using a combination of volunteers,
satellite imagery, image processing and a machine learning-based algorithm, the
team trained a system to identify the poorest villages based on the proportion
of thatch to metal roofed homes, a simple yet effective proxy for poverty. A
on the research was awarded the best social good paper at the 2014 KDD Conference.
|IBM Research scientist Kush Varshney|
For Saška, an IBM Fellow (the company’s highest technical rank), putting
her skills as a data scientist to societal issues is a professional
responsibility. “There are so many disparities in the world from justice, to poverty,
to hunger. We need to try to do something. If everyone did the best they could
do – the world might go in a different direction. We have a responsibility as
people and scientists. And we have a responsibility to raise new generations of
data scientists to think and act the same.”
|IBM Fellow Saška Mojsilović|
For Kush, an IBM Research scientist and member of Saška’s team, it’s also about
following family example. “My grandfather was dedicated to many social causes
in India throughout his life. He was an applied mathematician like me, but in
his day, there was no data being collected in the social sector, so he used
other means to make a difference. Today, I can use my expertise to create a
Today, their sense of purpose has led to the founding of IBM’s Social
Good Fellowship Program. This new initiative invites graduate and
post-doctoral students to apply their computer science and statistical skills
to projects that address important social issues, such as health care, equality,
the environment, sustainability, disaster response and more.
As co-directors of the program, Saška
and Kush bring a tremendous amount of knowledge, relationships and experience. They’re what you might call hands-on philanthropic
scientists, who will pair students and scholars with IBM scientists and partner
organizations to tackle some of the biggest challenges in our world.
Open Data at a Tipping Point
The social good movement has
taken root with many a corporation, entrepreneur and big thinker, with the
simple aim of using technology to help create a better world. Data science is one
increasingly important way that social good can be made possible and an entire
community has grown around it, fueled in large part by the fact we are no
longer constrained by data.
from Internet activity, satellite imagery, social media, health records, news,
scientific publications, economic data, weather data, and government records is
all at our fingertips, giving us an opportunity, and a responsibility, to
change the world for the better using data science,” said Saška.
Two types of fellowships will be offered through the
program. Starting this summer, IBM Research will bring on graduate students for
a 12-week fellowship, and later in the year a postdoctoral scholar will be
hired to complete a one-year fellowship. Each student will be partnered up with one or more IBM Research
mentors who will assist and guide the data scientists throughout their term. Over time, Kush and Saška hope to expand the number of hires, partners, mentors,
IBM labs, and scientific disciplines that make up the program.
|IBM Research scientists Raya Horesh (standing, far left), Dennis Wei (standing, center), Kush Varshney (sitting, right), and Saška Mojsilović (far right) with data science community members at the second Ebola Open Data Jam in 2015.|
What’s notable about the IBM fellowship is that it’s the
first corporate program aimed exclusively at
data science for social good, focused on advanced students with skills in
computer or data science and analytics. IBM is now joining the data for good
movement, which has so far been largely shaped by startups, non-profits, hackathons/challenges
and university-based programs. Friends who are active players in this community,
such as the University of Chicago and DataKind, shared many lessons with Saška and Kush that were
instrumental in helping shape the creation of the IBM effort.
Key to the success of the program is scoping.
Well before any student starts, the IBM team will have worked with partners to
secure and curate the relevant data, lay out the objectives and agree on outcomes.
For Kush and Saška, this program means more than giving the next generation of data scientists
projects with which to hone their skills and produce publishable results. It’s
also helping them make an impact on humanity by addressing issues important to the general population. And then
there’s another type of giving with the involvement of IBM mentors. “I can’t
even explain the amount of enthusiasm we have received for this program.
Everyone wants to participate,” Saška says.
Labels: ebola, givedirectly, IBM Social Good Fellowship, social engagement