Big Data for Social Good

We need to ground our policy decisions in cross-disciplinary research—especially in an era of such ideological polarization.

The ability to drill down into research data to change the world was the central theme Monday night at Big Data for Social Good, the first interdisciplinary Research Frontiers Silicon Valley presentation at the UCSC Silicon Valley Extension campus in Santa Clara.

Katharyne Mitchell, a sociology professor and dean of the Division of Social Sciences who emceed the free public event, emphasized the critical need to ground our policy decisions in cross-disciplinary research—especially in an era of such ideological polarization.

“It’s not just a great way to be in the world for us and for our students,” Mitchell said. “It’s something that’s needed now more than ever as we see all kinds of turmoil at the national scale.” At a time when people can’t really listen to a difference of opinion, “we need to be out there making sure people get a real awareness of what’s going on.”

The event, sponsored by the Division of Social Sciences and the Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation at UC Santa Cruz, focused on ongoing big data projects in the areas of education, employment, and healthcare—a sampling of the diverse research underway at the campus.

Using Data to Reduce Disparities in Public Education

Rebecca London, assistant professor of Sociology, has been working four years with community partners in education establishing a data trust to address the achievement gap between low-income, racially diverse students and their more academically successful peers.

The Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust is focused on serving more than 410,000 youth in 412 public schools in 66 school districts in three Silicon Valley counties. Among them are about 15,000 homeless youth and 2,500 who are in foster care. A tightly controlled repository of information could help the Silicon Valley youth get the services they need to reduce the disparities in education.

The Effect of a Major Medical Event on Financial Well-Being

By studying the medical and financial data of about a half million Californians, Carlos Dobkin, professor of Economics, uncovered some unexpected realities about the economic impact of crushing healthcare costs. The data showed that it could have a much bigger impact to focus our policies on forgiving the debt of people buried in healthcare costs rather than focusing on adding healthcare coverage.

You can have the best of intentions to reduce the bankruptcy rate, Dobkin said, but you may be focusing all of your energy on solving something that isn’t the biggest contributor to the problem.

Secure Futures: Silicon Valley’s Tech Economy and the Future of Work

We live in insecure times in which 46 percent of Americans can’t access $400 in an emergency, said Chris Benner, professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology. If given the choice of a stable income or the opportunity to move up an income ladder, most people—92 percent— would choose the former. What can society do to provide stability going forward in an information and knowledge-based economy?

Benner cited the enormous income disparity as the No 1 factor of instability and suggested looking at the fundamental idea of work and whether individuals deserve payment for the contributions each of us makes as a member of society. Maybe it’s a single payer health system or free higher education or a universal technology dividend for the wealth that’s created.

Don’t look at the economy as a pie to be apportioned to each of us, but rather as a garden that shares a common infrastructure, he said. “There’s a strong argument to be made for increasing the social wage.”

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