Monthlong seminar focuses on helping students understand data
Data science continues to evolve as one of the most promising and in-demand disciplines, and budding data scientists are all too happy to explore the field … one byte at a time. Just ask Rylan Chong, Ph.D., Chaminade’s Data Science Program Director.
“Chaminade received approval in 2018 to launch a Data Science major, which was the first of its kind in Hawaii,” Chong says. “And we had our first cohort of 40-50 students in 2019. Now our classes are practically maxed out each semester.”
This summer, 35 students participated in the Supporting Pacific Indigenous Computing Excellence (SPICE) Data Science Summer Institute—from June 2-30—marking the largest number of participants since SPICE’s inception five years ago. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, and in partnership with the Texas Advanced Computing Center, SPICE aims to level the playing field for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) students, who are woefully underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and specifically cutting-edge data science.
“We want to advance computing and data for social change and justice,” says Chong, who graduated with a bachelor’s in Computer Science from Chaminade in 2010, and with a doctorate in Information Security from Purdue University of West Lafayette in 2018. “We want to work with our community partners and upscale people’s knowledge about the use of data.”
SPICE participants include 22 undergraduate students from Hawaii, including 19 from Chaminade University. The remaining eight undergraduates hail from the Northern Marianas College (5), Mount Mercy University in Iowa, University of Portland and Guam Community College. Five undergraduate student mentors also were involved.
“Not to sound cliché, but data science is everywhere,” says Biology Assistant Professor Chrystie K. Naeole, Ph.D. “Students get to mesh science with data science, and to look at disparities among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.”
With one of the largest wealth gaps in the nation, high rates of incarceration, and high rates of illness and health disparity, Hawaii has a compelling need to address social justice issues. Students of Hawaiian descent have something they want to fix because they see the inequality every day in their families and their communities, from health and homelessness to the environment and sustainable energy.
“Most people have a passion. Most people care about something significant, something that they have a personal connection to,” says Kelly Gaither, director of Health Analytics at TACC and Associate Professor in Women’s Health at the Dell Medical School. “When you have a personal connection, it’s like a glue. It allows other concepts that you need to stick. In the absence of that glue, students may not realize they’d be happy working in computer science or data science because of the way it’s taught and presented to them.”
Chong believes we already apply data science in our daily routines. We compare prices, for example, when we’re shopping for groceries. We’ll shop at stores that offer better deals. Think of Longs Drugs on a Sunday or Safeway on $5 Fridays. We compare quantity and quality, a generic brand versus brand name.
“You can apply data science to every field—education, healthcare and mental health, environment science and climate change, and criminal justice,” Chong explains. “It’s not just about crunching numbers, but ensuring the numbers reflect different viewpoints and getting those numbers into the right hands.”
A 2022 Chaminade University alumna with a degree in Data Science, Analytics and Visualization and one-time SPICE participant, Zoey Kaneakua is now a data analyst with the Department of the Attorney General’s Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division. And her job: To monitor crime statistics in Hawaii and to share the data with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), an incident-based reporting system in which law enforcement collects data on each crime occurrence.
“That was my first independent research involving juvenile justice,” recalls Kaneakua of her participation in SPICE during her junior year. “And I think I built my first dashboard in three days using Python (a high-level, general-purpose programming language).”
Like Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) of the past, data science was barely mentioned a decade ago in scientific circles. Now it’s everywhere. In the same way that A.I. is an umbrella term for intelligence, Data Science is an umbrella term for insights from data. Sometimes these two terms appear to be in conflict or competition, but this is not the case. The field of data and machine intelligence is vast and involves everything from understanding data to helping computers learn from the data and solve problems automatically using their learnings. Arguably, both Data Science and A.I. are critical for businesses and maintain a complicated symbiotic relationship.
“The underlying theme of SPICE is about building capacity and learning communities in the Pacific to harness the power of technology and data to address challenges,” Chong says, borrowing from the National Science Foundation’s Harnessing the Data Revolution initiative. “We focus on social aspects, applied ethics and responsibility working with people and data.”
In their final projects, SPICE participants studied various issues, from Indo-Pacific Resilience and Hawaii Biodiversity to Tax and Housing Equity and Health.
“All their projects were based on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” Chong said. “These students upskilled in analytics, research and programming. We also had a lot of firsts this year. To name a few, it included an opportunity to use the TACC supercomputers at the University of Texas at Austin; we had technical directors who joined us in helping on sponsored projects; and three students presented their projects in their preferred or native language that included Spanish, Carolinian and Native Hawaiian.”