By Qining Wang

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub (MBDH) recently partnered with multiple institutions in the region for new data science activities under its Community Development and Engagement Program. This program incubates new projects and provides support to help them grow.

In the last proposal cycle, the MBDH Seed Fund Steering Committee selected three projects to support, led by the Tribal Nations Research Group (TNRG), St. Catherine University, and Trinity Christian College.

TNRG Digital Agriculture Meeting

The TNRG, together with the University of North Dakota and Grand Farm/Emerging Prairie, will host a one-day workshop in 2022, at the Microsoft Business Center in Fargo, North Dakota. This workshop will connect tribal colleges and universities working with their local tribal governments to extend digital agriculture and educational opportunities to Native farmers.

Approximately 30% of the nation’s Native population and 20 of the 37 of the nation’s tribal colleges and universities are located in the MBDH service area. Because of this, the MBDH is well-positioned to engage tribal stakeholders on issues related to Data Science Education and Workforce Development. This is especially true in the context of Digital Agriculture, where many of these institutions are working with their local tribal governments to extend agricultural programs and educational opportunities to Native farmers.

Tribal communities have not had the dedicated capital for building a resilient and sustainable infrastructure for harnessing food on their lands for a long time. The lack of such infrastructure creates food insecurity that can be detrimental to Indigenous peoples. In addition, due to climate change, it is crucial to build sustainable farming practices that can provide sufficient food and preserve the ecosystem everywhere in the long run.

One way to realize optimal farming practices is to incorporate digital agriculture, which integrates digital technologies into crops and livestock management. Technologies such as machine learning and big data analysis tools can improve agricultural production while minimizing the harm to the ecosystem. For instance, by correlating multiple parameters related to crop growth using machine learning, farmers can better predict crop yield based on other parameters such as nutrients in the soil, weather, and fertilization. Those technologies can therefore make information on ecosystems, crops, and animals more findable and interpretable to farmers.

However, implementing digital agriculture on tribal lands involves extra layers of nuance. Data scientists and agricultural experts must conduct digital agriculture research in tribal regions under proper data sovereignty standards, such as the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance. Indigenous peoples are entitled to know what data is collected and how data scientists use and analyze their data. The data should enable Indigenous peoples to derive benefit from any fruits of the research involving tribal communities.

This workshop will serve to increase the accessibility of digital agriculture in Native communities, emphasizing respecting the culture, traditions, and sovereignty of the Native people. In addition, this workshop will enlist more tribal stakeholders nationwide for broader engagement in digital agriculture, potentially developing a Data Science Workforce Development and Education proposal for Native communities. Anita Frederick, the President of TNRG, will lead this workshop and present the importance of Data Management and Data Sovereignty.

“Outreach to Indian tribes is often difficult for non-tribal entities and individuals,” Frederick said. “As a direct result, tribal populations are often left out of initiatives that could help to address some of the economic, health, and other societal conditions that tribes face. Clearly, American Indian citizens must have access to the opportunities envisioned in the Big Data Revolution. The proposed project is a first step in helping to close the growing Big Data gap that is emerging between Indian country and the rest of the nation.”

St. Catherine Data Science Boot Camp

MBDH will also support a data science program “created by women for women” at St. Catherine University (aka St. Kate’s), one of the USA’s largest private women’s universities, located in St. Paul, Minnesota. This program aims to cultivate a new generation of women and historically underrepresented data scientists. In addition to teaching data science and data analytic principles, this program will also raise students’ awareness of using data science in ethically, socially, and environmentally just ways.

Introduced in the fall semester of 2018, the data science program at St. Kate’s reaches both current and prospective students of the University. Monica Brown, the Mary T. Hill Director of Data Science at St. Kate’s, will lead the program’s two initiatives in 2021-2022. Working alongside her colleagues at St. Kate’s for over 13 years, Brown aspires to make data science and data analytics principles accessible to every student in the St. Kate’s community.

Brown will launch a one-week Data Science Boot Camp in the summer of 2022. This boot camp will provide hands-on coding experience to middle- and high-school students, particularly those historically excluded from data science. In addition, Brown will invite data science professionals to speak about future career opportunities. Overall, this program aims to enable younger students to envision themselves as future data scientists and to elicit their passion for coding and data science. The lessons learned organizing this event will be shared with others who wish to do so with their own student populations.

“St. Kate’s is grateful for the partnership with MBDH towards the support of a boot camp,” said Brown. “We very much look forward to bringing younger students onto our campus to encourage and empower them through data science activities.”

Trinity Data Science for Social Good Workshop

The third project to be incubated under the MBDH’s Community Development and Engagement program will be an annual workshop and conference on Teaching with Data for Social Good (DSG) in summer 2022. DSG addresses the importance of teaching data science for positive social impact, and this conference serves as an opportunity that encourages teaching faculty to include DSG in their curricula proactively.

Trinity Christian College, a faith-based institution located on the outskirts of Chicago, will host this meeting. The workshop chair will be Dr. Karl Schmitt, an assistant professor in the Data Analytics department at Trinity and the coordinator of the Data Analytics program.

The meeting format resembles that of regional professional society meetings, consisting of a workshop, keynotes, and contributed talks. To provide more practical assistance to teaching faculty incorporating DSG, faculty will directly generate teaching materials that include DSG in the primary workshop sessions. Additionally, faculty will also have a chance to practice teaching DSG by actively advising student teams participating in a colocated datathon. In this student competition, student teams will use data science to solve practical problems.

“An important component of increasing persistence and success for our current generation of students is connecting their coursework to meaningful change or outcomes,” Schmitt said. “Through the Workshop on Data for Good in Education, the MBDH will be supporting faculty in developing their teaching to better incorporate the Data for Social Good (DSG) movement. This provides a natural connection to relevance with grass-roots level improvements in our society while promoting the broad applicability of data science.”

Beyond these outcomes, Schmitt said, “the workshop will be a professional development opportunity for all instructors seeking to more deeply engage their students through meaningful social good projects within a classroom setting. It will inspire, educate, and most importantly, allow faculty the chance to share, and prepare, materials for use within their own teaching context.”

Get involved

Learn more about other Community Development and Engagement partnerships, and contact the MBDH if you have an idea for a project to help build the data science community in the Midwest.

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other people or projects we should profile here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas. The MBDH has a variety of ways to get involved with our community and activities.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University, Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the national NSF Big Data Hubs community.