Magic City Data Collective steers students toward data science fields

Pilot program is a public-private partnership in Birmingham

On Demo Day, UAB students presented the projects they had completed for area businesses and organizations.

Organizations in Alabama, and around the world for that matter, collect and generate staggering amounts of data every day from an amazing array of sources — smartphones, online activities, social networking sites, logistics tracking systems, even government reports and consumer surveys. 

And it is the job of data scientists to collect, analyze and interpret that data to help organizations spot trends, patterns and problems so stakeholders can develop solutions, forecast consumer demand or come up with new products or services. 

Now a new initiative in Birmingham called the Magic City Data Collective aims to attract more students to the field of data science.

“Data science is about making sense of data in the world around us where we’re awash in data,” says Lauren Rast, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and the MCDC learning manager.

Rast and UAB Director of External Affairs Emily Wykle are co-project managers of MCDC, which is a pilot public-private partnership between UAB, the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation. 

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Through MCDC, undergraduate and graduate students take on paid internships with local employers in business, tech, education and philanthropy to work on real-world projects that require them to use their data analytical skills. MCDC is supported with a grant from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. 

Wykle says they came up with the idea after learning that companies and organizations around Birmingham were struggling to hire employees skilled in data analysis. 

“At UAB, we were hearing again and again from employer partners that it was critical that students come out of undergraduate and graduate degree programs with the skillset to synthesize a whole bunch of information, draw conclusions and navigate that process,” she says.

Data scientists use a wide variety of computational techniques ranging from simple statistical methods to more complex and sophisticated machine learning techniques, Rast says. 

“Data is embedded in almost every aspect of our modern society,” says Rast, “and, increasingly, people think of data as a commodity. So, if we think of data as this valuable commodity, then it’s really important that we have a diverse set of people with the skills to do data analytics so we can make sense out of data and derive knowledge from it.”

The fact is data scientists are in great demand these days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 22% by 2030.

“Anecdotally we’ve seen a huge uptick over the past couple of years in demand amongst employers,” says Emily Jerkins Hall, a managing partner with the Birmingham Business Alliance. 

In the Birmingham area alone, demand for data scientists has increased 45% over the past five years, Hall says.

“Not only are these jobs and skills in demand, they also pay well,” Hall says, noting that in-demand jobs requiring data skills pay 65% more — around $26,000 more — than the average job in Birmingham, according to BBA’s analysis of Burning Glass Technologies data. 

MCDC launched its first cohort of data science student fellows earlier this summer, and organizers say they made sure the group included students from both racially and academically diverse backgrounds with participants majoring in subjects such as computer science, physics and digital marketing.

UAB senior Darryl McIntosh, 23, of Bessemer, a computer science major, says he first heard about MCDC after getting an email invitation to attend an information session about the program. 

“I hadn’t really considered data before, but it was something new that I wanted to try. So, I decided to try it out,” he says. 

In MCDC, McIntosh and the other fellows took a physics course called “Understanding the World Through Data.” The course introduced students to using data and modeling, as well as Python computer coding and techniques for analyzing results.

In addition to the coursework, the UAB students split into teams, and, with assistance from industry professionals at local companies and organizations — including an IT auditor, data integrity specialist, community engagement manager, data analyst and others — worked on specific projects for those organizations. 

McIntosh and his team worked for the Birmingham Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping Birmingham City School students become college and career ready. McIntosh says they worked on creating an online dashboard that would give parents a single source to research how different Birmingham City schools are performing instead of having to search out information from multiple sources. 

McIntosh says he spent the summer analyzing data from the Alabama State Department of Education Report Card website, including the average grades of each school and the attendance rates among various populations of students.

“The coding wasn’t that difficult because I had taken a class the year before in the same coding language,” says McIntosh, “but learning about the different data structures and things like that was completely new to me. So, it took me a little while to learn them. But once I started to learn more about it, it was really interesting, and I really liked it.”

Fellow classmate Faiza Mawani, 20, a sophomore political science and history major from Hoover, also worked with the Birmingham Education Foundation. 

Mawani says she hopes to one day earn a law degree and use her data science skills to advocate for educational equality. 

Learning to code in Python, however, was a new experience for her, she says. 

“I’d never been in a situation where I had to do coding. It was something very new, but Dr. Rast was very encouraging,” Mawani says.

“The class structure itself made it easy for me to understand and comprehend what was going on,” she says. “And even though I still can’t code for my life, I learned essential and basic foundations and my data analysis skills became stronger through the class.”

For the project, Mawani says she pulled data from parent surveys to spot and analyze trends. 

“I learned so much,” Mawani says. “In the past I researched general topics, but doing something so specific and so real, knowing that it would make an impact on the lives of so many Birmingham students was very rewarding.”

Other students worked with the Protective Life Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company whose services include life insurance. 

The UAB students, with some guidance from a Protective employee, examined the Foundation’s work since its beginning in 1994. They obtained aggregated data about total funding in key areas of giving that includes arts and culture, education, human services and the environment, and categorized the information, Foundation Executive Director Eva Robertson says. 

“It’s a nice thing to be able to look at the work we’ve been doing for a long time and answer the question, ‘Are we hitting the mark?’” she says. 

Cori Fain, vice president of social impact at Landing, a membership network of furnished apartments, says a team of MCDC fellows helped her company by researching Birmingham’s tech talent density and diversity to create a user-friendly tech talent dashboard. 

“We wanted to have a say in how it’s developed because we wanted to make sure this project would help guide our investments in the tech ecosystem,” Fain says. 

At the end of the semester, MCDC held a “Demo Day” where all of the teams presented the results of their individual projects. 

“We’re very proud of everything they did,” says Fain. “The tech talent dashboard they built was a great first version of the product.”

In fact, she says Landing plans to participate again right away. 

“We’re so happy with it that we’re investing in a second year with MCDC to build out the dashboard and hopefully drive toward the public launch of this product, so that it can be made available for the community. We hope the dashboard will help public, private and nonprofit leaders make smart, targeted investments in the tech talent pipeline and ultimately support a coordinated effort to grow Birmingham’s tech ecosystem,” she says.

Meanwhile, Robertson gives the program high praise, too.

“I would absolutely do this again,” says Robertson. “We like the program because it’s about inspiring a group of diverse students to love data analytics work. That’s fabulous, because we hire people like that.”

Gail Allyn Short is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham.

This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama magazine.

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