Pipeline to Innovation: Insights from a Chat with Tom Kalil

September 17, 2018

“Data to knowledge to action.”

This pipeline to social impact in data science was among the interesting perspectives that Tom Kalil shared in a “Waterside Chat” at a recent California Water Data Hackathon. Sponsored by the Division of Data Sciences and Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS), the hackathon was part of the California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge, an effort to leverage data to find innovative ways to increase community access to safe drinking water.

Tom Kalil’s career has spanned from launching science and technology initiatives at the White House, to serving as Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Science and Technology at Berkeley, to his current position as Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures. So his ideas and advice were welcome insights for those eagerly listening at the event at BIDS.

Tom shared his experiences and thoughts on the various ways that data can be used to solve societal problems. For example, refugees who come into the United States are often randomly placed and may not succeed where they are located. He explained how considering economic characteristics and information on the refugees as part of the equation can provide useful insights on where they should be placed to increase opportunities for a successful transition.   

Tom emphasized the importance of having access to datasets and how open data drives innovation. Leveraging tech to solve societal issues and promoting shared prosperity were some of the key points he made when asked about the future of data science.

He urged students, both those participating in the hackathon and in general, to continue to spark innovation in each other through group work and in collaborative settings. Tom believes that data science can shift society to a “predict and prevent paradigm” that is more effective than a reactive model. For instance, he said, with lead poisoning in water, it’s important to focus on prevention, since once significant exposure occurs, there is really no effective treatment to reverse the effects. Targeting contaminated water is a safer approach than dealing with lead poisoning.

He also noted the effectiveness of companies taking action, for example Walmart focusing on their green supply chain instead of contributing money to an environmental organization.

The talk took a creative turn when Tom shared a fun thought experiment. “Imagine you have a magic laptop,” he said. “Any press release you write on the laptop will come true.” The purpose of this thought experiment was for students to practice thinking of their own ideas and how to make them happen. The value of a beginner’s mind or the perspective of an individual from another field is another point he stressed when thinking about how to approach societal issues with data science.

Wrapping up, Tom offered a few final thoughts for students who are just beginning their careers in data science and who are interested in learning more about the field. He noted that getting behind someone else’s idea allows many doors of opportunity to open. “Have the ability to get excited about other people’s ideas,” he remarked, and in the field of data science, there is no shortage of exciting ideas.