Discovery Program x MEJ: Undergraduates Apply Data Science to Environmental Justice

MEJ undergraduate meeting
July 21, 2020

Spearheaded by four graduate students from the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, Mapping for Environmental Justice (MEJ) integrates environmental, health, and socioeconomic data of US communities into a holistic and interactive public map. Similarly to CalEnviroScreen and the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map Project, MEJ aims to identify disadvantaged communities and provide quantitative evidence that can help lobby for better resources and regulations. MEJ went on to present their demonstration map to Colorado-based nonprofits, policymakers, advocates, etc., and the initiative even received a $60K grant from UC Berkeley’s The Green Initiative Fund

 

MEJ benefited greatly from the work of five Berkeley data science undergraduates, who were instrumental in the creation of MEJ’s first demonstration map for the state of Colorado. Recruited from a partnership with the Data Science Education Program’s (DSEP) Discovery Program, the undergraduate students collected, cleaned, and combined datasets on race, poverty, and pollution into a single indicator that displays their combined impact. In participating in this project, the DSEP students not only gained real-world experience in data science but also witnessed firsthand how their skills could be used to positively impact society--an invaluable learning opportunity that DSEP was able to provide to students through coordination with MEJ.  

Discovery Program Partnership 

Kelly Armijo and Adam Buchholz, UC Berkeley Public Policy graduate students and project managers of MEJ, learned about DSEP from its flyers in the Berkeley Student Union. MEJ was in its beginning stages and needed an extensive amount of environmental justice data to be gathered and processed to make the interactive maps. “The Data Science Education Discovery Program presented the perfect opportunity to bring in students with the technical skills to help create our maps and teach students about environmental justice and policy advocacy,” Kelly says. 

 

Neha Hudait, an undergraduate student who helped handle data and create different Application Program Interfaces (APIs) for MEJ, joined the project after taking a class on racial and income inequalities in the US. For the course’s final project, she created an educational website on the distribution of environmental assets and risks in the Bay area. Neha was drawn to MEJ’s environmental justice work, stating, “When I discovered that the Goldman School for Public Policy aimed to analyze real data, I thought I could apply my data science skills in a meaningful way and continue the passion this course inspired me to have.”

Undergraduate Experience

Kelly and Adam welcomed the DSEP students into their team and worked closely with them. They led weekly meetings where each student discussed their progress and challenges, managed a team slack channel for easy communication and coordination, and met individually with students to review and guide their work. Neha speaks highly of their leadership: “They were honestly the best project managers and were very invested in the team as they were in the project.” The graduate students also kept the DSEP students in the loop about MEJ’s outreach and advocacy efforts. At the end of the semester, students were granted the flexibility to work on an individual project of their choice, which helped them develop a deeper understanding of their work and how it aligns with the overall goals of MEJ. 

 

The graduate students hope that through working with MEJ, the data science undergraduates were able to learn more about environmental justice and the real-life applications of data science. “We hope the students gained a deeper understanding of environmental justice, the role that data can play in policymaking, and the importance of grounding environmental justice data in communities’ lived experiences,” Kelly says. “In addition, we hope the students learned how to apply their data science skills to real-world situations, as well as how data science can support community outreach, coalition building, and legislative reform efforts.”

 

MEJ certainly helped Neha see the importance of data-driven projects in public policy and how it helps policymakers understand the state of environmental and social affairs. She mentions how analyzing environmental justice data collectively can reveal important details to the story that were not apparent in individual factors. She uses her hometown in Southwest Virginia as an example; though she initially did not realize that there was a disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards, it became clear when she holistically analyzed the data. “I realized how important it was to bring this up to my local legislator,” she continues. “I think that story is very important to convey especially in areas where inequality is not obvious. I hope that in the future, this tool will be used to help educate local policymakers to create policies that help to alleviate the burden that many minority groups face.”

Lessons Learned 

Not only did MEJ allow Neha to continue her passion for environmental justice, but it also inspired her to minor in Global Poverty and Practice to continue to learn about disparities around the world. Though there are ample opportunities to learn technical skills, Neha was more interested in the impact of data science in education and public policy. Through the partnership between the Discovery Program and MEJ, Neha was able to join an “impact-driven” project, something she had never been involved with before. “Being surrounded by people who were passionate about the same things I was and were more interested in the impact was my biggest takeaway from this experience,” she says. “If I had the opportunity to, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

 

Neha also urges others to use their technical skills to work towards a better society. “Currently, Gen Z has continued a massive movement highlighting the inequalities and disparities of our country in a multitude of different ways,” she asserts. “Data has and continues to be critical to educate the masses on current and future events. Data scientists and engineers are no longer bystanders in our technology-based society; together it is our responsibility to use technology to make progress towards a more just and equitable society. This project was just a small way of making this progress, and I encourage everyone to find ways to use their technical skills to create a meaningful impact in their own communities.”