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Chicago-Based Civic Tech Fellowship Gives Fledgling Government Data Scientists a Head Start

The beyond.uptake program pairs service-oriented data scientists with industry experts for a six-month course of learning.

When Nick Lucius went to work for Chicago as a data scientist, he brought a unique background that included a graduate-level degree in computer science plus years as a practicing government attorney.

As a lawyer, Lucius had represented the police, the buildings department, streets and sanitation. He’d had real experience with foreclosures, and he’d performed legal work related to gangs and drugs and vacant buildings. He knew the struggles Chicago faced as a major metropolis, and he knew the vast amount of data the local government had at its disposal. Knowing all this, Lucius envisioned ways of using data to improve lives for Chicagoans, of offering more efficient government services and bolstering municipal efficiency. So, in October 2016 he transitioned into a role as a data scientist with the city.

Having all that experience, even the technical knowledge, still left much for Lucius to learn when he started. Data science is a rapidly changing field with much nuance, many challenges and an obscure pathos, especially as it relates to use in government, even for someone with a background as primed for the gig as Lucius.

Shortly after Lucius started with the city, however, he was picked for an inaugural program run by a Chicago data science company called Uptake. Dubbed beyond.uptake, the six-month fellowship included training sessions on methodologies, cybersecurity, machine learning, agile development, data visualization and more. Participants were also paired with three mentors from Uptake’s expert staff: a data scientist, an engineer, and a business or agile coach. They spent the next six months working on a project, checking in regularly with their mentors as they went.

Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data officer, said the program helped bridge the gap between the experience and technical knowledge Lucius brought to the work and the esoteric nature of the field.

“This was a really great opportunity for [Lucius] to quickly come up to speed on the way we should approach data science as a discipline, the methodologies that we have and organization principals,” Schenk said. “It’s certainly something you could learn on the job, and his peers here help that, but this fellowship helped us distribute that load, helped mentor and shepherd him into the data science discipline.”

This fellowship model — taking governmental servants like Lucius and putting them through apprenticeships with the best in the field — is a valuable one, combining the vast resources inherent to a private data science company like Uptake with people who work in municipal or social groups seeking to make data serve the public. The need these groups have to devise and institute practices such as predictive analytics is often far larger than the resources at their disposal. While Chicago’s city government has a team of data scientists, some public agencies only have a single person in the field, so the program seeks to give them a network of mentors and peers to bounce ideas off of even after it ends.

And Chicago is, in many ways, an ideal fit — it's a city with a rich tradition of civic tech collaboration involving government, academic institutions such as the University of Chicago and community organizations such as Smart Chicago, which is a civic collective aimed at fostering better lives of Chicagoans through tech. Uptake’s director, Andrew Means, is a veteran of civic tech in the city, having co-founded The Impact Lab and served as an associate director for the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy, and he said the idea behind the program is to not just share the money Uptake has to offer, but also to share its knowledge and expertise.

The program's second cohort of fellows arrived this week, and Means said he envisions the future of beyond.uptake as a long one. The ideal participant is someone with at least proficient technical training who isn’t starting from scratch. It’s also someone working to make the world better with data, not by strictly evaluating whether an existing program is effective, but rather by using data to reshape and do programs differently.

“It’s almost a mindset we’re looking for more than a particular organization,” Means said.

Lucius, for his part, said through the fellowship he learned ways to operate within data science that will continue to be useful as his career progresses.

“What I learned is that data science — this field and industry that’s out there — it’s so massive,” he said. “There’s so much that’s out there, so much that’s changing, and I learned tools to go and find the things I need to solve problems.”

And Schenk said that this program will likely remain a useful one for Chicago, as well as for any public agency doing the yeoman’s feat of indoctrinating young data scientists into the profession.

“The beyond.uptake program is really an asset that’s there for us, especially for younger data scientists that come into the city of Chicago, a very large organization where we need more and more people to understand data on a daily basis,” said Schenk. “beyond.uptake is an opportunity to help grow that skill and talent, and reduce the amount of time it takes for someone to come up to speed on good data science practice and principles.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.