On a recent morning at Los Angeles City Hall, professor Jocelyn Graf and a team of students from Los Angeles City College met with officials from the controller’s office and the IT agency. On the agenda: How the students can help local government make sense of a mountain of internal records using “big data” tools.
“Big data” is shorthand for analyzing massive sets of records to help make big decisions, like studying traffic patterns for urban planning, modeling stock market performance — or deciding what appears in our Facebook feeds.
The widespread use of big data techniques is a fundamental change in business and public life, and it’s creating high-paying jobs. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, data specialists can earn up to twice the median wage.
Graf wants to make sure some of those lucrative gigs go to local students. She dreamed up this partnership between LACC and City Hall after attending the launch of the city's open data portal, unveiled by Mayor Eric Garcetti in May 2014.
The project is difficult. To help improve the city's employment policies, the students attempt to find patterns in complicated personnel records. This type of work is usually done by Ph.D. candidates, but Graf’s team is made up of community college students, with a wide mix of backgrounds, varying levels of education and a host of challenges.
Some, like Robert Tejada, can barely afford college. “I came from El Salvador, when I was around 9 years old, and so I applied for DACA,” he said.
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It keeps students like Tejada – who doesn’t have legal immigration status – from being deported. It also means he doesn’t get the same help other students do. Tejada said his biggest challenge is figuring out how to pay for his education, because under DACA he doesn’t qualify for financial aid.
You hear concerns like this from other students in the college’s STEM program — short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Rose Rumyan said just finding a place to study is hard.
“I live with 7 other people, I share a room with my brother,” she explained. “He’s my younger brother, so all he wants to do is play, he wants my attention.” She said it's hard to always say no to him, and she relies on the STEM office for a place where she can do homework without constant distractions.
Professor Graf, the most recent director of LACC’s STEM program, said students come to her with serious problems. “I had one of my students contact me once and say ‘Hey, can I sleep under your desk tonight? I don’t have a place to stay.’”
She helped find the student a place to sleep. But challenges like these make it difficult to teach data science at the community college level, said Ed Wood. He’s a graduate student in stats at UCLA and he’s gotten to know the students as their volunteer mentor.
“They’re self-selecting, they’re deciding ‘I want to go back, I want to be educated.’ That’s a good thing,” he said. But there are obstacles too, he was quick to point out. The students come from all kinds of backgrounds, they vary in age and some have had almost no exposure to programming at all, while others have completed a full course load in computer science. That makes it hard to design a class that works for everyone, said Wood.
Another hurdle was to get attorneys at the city and the college to agree on terms for sharing data. “It took over a year between the time that I met the city of L.A. staff and when we actually had data in hand from the city to work with,” Graf said.
When administrators on both sides finally signed off, and the class officially launched, it was a victory for the STEM program, which serves as a connector on campus – a central place for students to study, get one-on-one mentoring and access to learning resources.
But in 2015, things ground to a halt. A major sponsor pulled out of LACC’s STEM program, and Graf lost her job.
Student tutors struggled to keep the STEM office running on their own, and the future of the fledgling data science team looked grim, but Graf refused to give up. She found a workforce development grant through the Federal Department of Labor, and she hopes to launch a data analysis apprenticeship this summer.
Her students are still working with the city on analyzing personnel data, even though she stepped back from being a formal instructor. Robert Tejada is one of the students sticking with it. Learning to analyze big data sets is part of his plan to one day enroll in a Ph.D. program in physics.
“My long-term vision is to be able to work for JPL, or for NASA, or for a private space company,” he said.
Graf is rooting for him to succeed. She’s hoping more low-income students like Robert will have a big future in big data.