Sociology, Open Data, and Civic Tech

Using technology and data-driven approaches to improve urban environments and public institutions
Graduate students sitting in a lecture hall
Graduate students attend a lecture on urban informatics at Northeastern.

This piece was written in partnership with Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

Tell us a little bit about your background and journey to your current job and interest in civic tech.

I went to college at Plymouth State University (PSU) where I studied sociology and anthropology. I’ve always been interested in the ways in which people interact, self-organize, create meaning, and all the strange things we humans do. I got a little frustrated with sociology because I was always asking myself why we weren’t backing these theories up with some numbers. Eventually, I found myself in a Regression Analysis course where I learned that you can predict social behavior with statistics. Soon after, my uncle mentioned to me this programming language called R, so I dove head first into the data science rabbit hole.
In 2015 there was no data science curriculum at PSU, so I worked with professors in an independent study to learn new statistical techniques and apply them with R, and on studies of social perception using both sociological theory and data science technique. This experience really proved to me the efficacy of a mixed methodological approach, and I was hooked.

Following my graduation I enrolled in the Master of Urban Informatics program at Northeastern University and began working for the super PAC NextGen America as the Data Director for New Hampshire during the 2018 midterm elections.

How did you end up at RStudio?

Even though it’s been nearly a year and a half, I am still in shock and think about how fortunate I am to work for an organization as wonderful as RStudio, PBC. During graduate school I became a bit more involved in the Boston useR group, where a now-colleague who suggested I look into open job postings. Like most people, I was unaware of the commercial side of RStudio’s business. What followed was the most intriguing and engaging interview process I had ever been in!

RStudio works off of what’s called an open-core model, which means that the core of our business is our open-source products and software (like the wonderful tidyverse, r-lib, and r-dbi work, to name a few). In order to fund our open-source work we have a commercial side, and that’s where I come in. I’m on our customer success team, which engages directly with our existing customers.

What sorts of agencies/orgs do you come in contact with through your job?

On our customer success team we have folks who work with life science organizations like the CDC, NHS, NIH, non-profits, academic institutions, finance, insurance, etc. However, I get to work with our public sector organizations. These are largely government bodies like NASA, statistical agencies around the globe, or non-profits like the ACLU, which are integral parts of our social fabric.

How would you define civic tech?

Given my background as a sociologist, I define civic tech as a critical approach to social inequities supported by technology and data-driven approaches. By critical, I mean focused on reevaluating existing social structures and institutions. This is largely supported by partnerships between private enterprise and public agencies which, in order to succeed, need to be accessible to the populations they serve. I think about things like automatic voter registration and online voting, 311, bike shares, rapid transit, and so much more.

How would you describe civic tech to someone who isn’t familiar with the term?

Think of all of the things that you do that somehow tangentially involve the government. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. Take, for example, voting, driving on roads, garbage removal, housing—all of these things affect local residents and are largely handled by local municipalities. Generally, there is little to no communication between government and individuals. Civic tech tries to improve all of these things while simultaneously increasing involvement of each and every member of the public.

Can you describe your experience in the Urban Informatics program at Northeastern University? Were there any memorable research projects you did?

The Urban Informatics program at Northeastern University was a rather interesting experience for me. I came into the program with a lot more applied knowledge of the data science landscape than my peers. This meant I was less interested in understanding the technology behind civic tech, and much more interested in understanding how individuals engage and perceive the urban environment and public institutions.

I think I’m somewhat of an outlier in that the most memorable aspect of the program for me was the urban theory class. It forced me to think about the network effects of human behavior; it made me really apply my understanding of social constructivism to the neighborhood, how we define it, and understand its boundaries; and challenged me to think about how we can take data and adapt it to uses outside of their original intent.

How did the Urban Informatics program at Northeastern University shape how you think about civic tech?

The Urban Informatics program illuminated all the ways government technology has to grow to catch up to private companies. It has made me consider the possibilities of private-public partnerships to address issues. And, above all, the program stressed the importance of open data as absolutely necessary to civic tech.

Learn more about the Urban Informatics program (in-person or online) at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs

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