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MIT Hackathon Applies Data Science to Public Policy Challenges

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently held the MIT Policy Hackathon, an event that brought together data science, engineering and policy students to come up with solutions to real problems brought by the event's organizers. More than 100 researchers and students from MIT and a half-dozen other universities participated in the weekend-long event, hosted by the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS).

"It's a different type of hackathon in that it is focused on public policy outcomes," said Amy Umaretiya, a student organizer with IDSS's Technology and Policy Program (TPP), in a prepared statement. "We have these concrete challenges put forth by organizations that have data analytics needs for social good that aren't being met."

"We wanted to create a hackathon where interdisciplinary teams tackle complex societal problems," said Marco Miotti, a doctoral student at IDSS, in a prepared statement. "The challenges were structured so you can't solve them without both data and policy expertise."

Participants were given access to datasets from government, education and nonprofit institutes and asked to tackle problems in fields such as transportation, the future of work, cybersecurity, energy and climate and health.

The winning team, NappyTime, proposed a solution that is covered by a nondisclosure agreement and aims to help solve the problem of insufficient diaper supply for some parents. The problem was proposed by event sponsors Mental health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership and the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN).

"The crux of this proposal was the need for more data on diaper need, and quantifying the benefits of addressing it," said Lawrence Baker, a TPP student on the winning team, in a prepared statement. "We wanted to propose policies that would be inexpensive for Connecticut, easy to implement, and would allow the collection of more data."

The Massachusetts government proposed two problems and asked students to find solutions to traffic congestion and how to help Boston meet its declared goal to become carbon neutral by mid-century. The Boston University Law School's Technology and Cyberlaw Clinic asked participants how to deal with data breaches such as the massive one that hit Equifax recently, and the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy asked students for suggestions to ensure there is a safety net in place for members of the gig economy.

"It is very satisfying to use the skills we normally only apply to narrowly focused, high-level scientific problems in the lab instead on a broad range of social issues that impact the daily life of many community members," said participant Ryan Badman, a Cornell University Ph.D. candidate in physics.

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About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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