Two professors helping high schoolers harness big data


High schoolers in the Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods are becoming Data Forerunners for their communities in an ongoing pilot program as they use big data to address systemic issues in their communities

Students work on data problemseThe program is an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental partnership between the Schools of Social Work and Computing and Information, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers in Homewood and the Hill District and the nonprofit community organization School 2 Career. Representatives from Google also helped with skill-building on Dec. 13.

Rosta Farzan, an associate professor in the School of Computing and Information, and Jaime Booth, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, are heading the pilot program.

Farzan and Booth have a shared interest in technology and how it can support underserved communities. In the past, the two have worked on a project that involved young adults creating mobile apps to support members of their communities, Farzan said.

During the earlier project, Farzan said, the participants showed interest in connecting technology to their lives. Farzan and Booth saw the potential for more engagement and began creating the Data Forerunners project.

There are 15 to 18 high school students in the program ranging from ninth to 12th grade, Farzan said. The students in the Hill District were chosen in collaboration with School 2 Career Program Director Karla Stallworth. Booth selected students from Homewood who had already been involved in a research project involving data collection.

Big data and data collecting are relevant topics as cities and governments have begun to try and make data more accessible, Farzan said.

Rosta Farzan“There is a strong shift to understand how these open data can support (the) decision-making process and engage the citizens more in the process,” Farzan said. “However, the challenges of the digital gap extend to this big data movement. Marginalized communities and individuals in those communities are often left behind, in many ways, in influencing what data is being collected, how they are represented in the data, and how data can be used to benefit them.”

The Data Forerunners program was created, in part, to help marginalized communities become more informed about big data, Farzan said.

“This is the main motivation behind this project to bridge this gap and to empower marginalized communities to own their data, to generate their data stories, and to use those to advocate for changes in their communities,” Farzan said.

The students are using public data to investigate community issues, including crime rates, racial disparities among Pittsburgh teachers, commuting habits and options, access to playgrounds, what affordable housing is available in Homewood and more.

These students want to use the data to help improve the lives of others in their communities, Stalworth said. Each student will turn in a project at the end of the pilot program, which will finish in the spring 2020 semester.

Jaime Booth“They may not even realize how impactful it will be, moving forward for them,” Stalworth said.

Booth said the skills students learn from the program, including coding, data visualization and data analyzation, can make them effective future community leaders and advocates.

“I think that it’s just a tool in a toolbox of things that can be used,” Booth said. “I don’t think it’s like a silver bullet for any of these issues, but it is something that the youth would be able to draw on as a strategy, I think, for advocating for change.”

So far, the students have responded positively to the program, said Kirk Holbrook, director of the Hill District Community Engagement Center. Holbrook said it has the potential to help catapult careers for these students in STEM-related fields.

Booth, Farzan and Holbrook have high hopes for the program as it continues to be refined throughout its pilot phase. They hope the program will expand in the future, and that the students will spread the skills they learn onto others in their communities.

“There is significant interest in trying to see what this can become,” Holbrook said. “I think there’s been growth already so (I’m) just excited to see what happens.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905. 


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