South Side High Schools Take on Urban Data to Improve City Living

November 23, 2013
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Over the last couple of years curriculum and careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields have become a national priority.

According to the Office of Science and Technology and Policy, STEM occupations will grow 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations over the period from 2008-2018.

A big part in the growth of this conversation is that of computing and data – data in the ideal of “Big Data” has been a leading hot topic as of late.

What’s becoming even more exciting is the engagement of students and young minds as it relates to STEM and ways in which data can be used to predict and begin solutions to citywide issues.

“We’re talking a lot of STEM, so how do we get high school kids to understand what is happening now and what could be happening later at an early enough age where they can make choices that will let them be apart of this,” said Shaz Rasul, Director of Neighborhood Schools Program at the University of Chicago.

Last week, the University of Chicago’s Searle Chemistry Laboratory hosted four Southside high schools during its Chicago: City of Big Data High School Hackathon.  For the four-hour working presentation, students from South Shore International College Prep, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Kenwood Career Academy, and University of Chicago Charter School, learned about data analysis and how to use data to assist in discovering solutions.

After an initial introduction, students broke off into rotating groups where former recipients of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, spoke to them about issues relating to the collection and interpretation of publicly available data. Within these discussions and demonstrations, key topics included crime and incarceration, the 411 on 311, the Divvy, bike sharing system and CTA Transportation- specifically focusing on bus route #6.


The goal was to introduce the issues and city concerns to the students and demonstrate the current process of resolve. Of course, many of the data solutions are still in progress and development.

“This is somewhat new to me,” said Jake McInnis, a senior at Kenwood Career Academy in Hyde Park. “Computer science is somewhat related to the major that I want to go into, which is Civil engineering. So today, they showed me how to use databases and how I can take information from the databases and make charts, graphs, different interpretations and simulations so they can make things run smoother.”

For Kenwood Senior Nikal Allen, the fascination with data and engineering grew on him as a child but he finds the research and development aspect of gathering data and translating the information to a website for people to analyze and predict conclusions “pretty interesting.”

“I’ve actually done some of that before through the MAPSCorps program, which combines research and community service, over the summer,” he shared. “I went around to different businesses and it allowed me to talk to a lot of people and experience different things around Chicago. It was a good experience because I got to know people and help plan events that we had as well.”

The outcome of this seminar was to engage young minds to begin thinking of how they would use data to track, predict and address city ills. For example, during the CTA presentation, the problem was bus overcrowding and figuring out time patterns in order to distinguish how frequently the buses need to run to avoid long wait times and knowing exactly when the buses become crowded.

Students were surprised to learn that CTA operators keep track of movement via a GPS system. Fellows working on this project discovered that there are non-traditional peak times in which causes the buses to crowd at times most would think the ride would be comfortable and smooth.  The data collected also showed that Chicago is not your average 9-5 city.

After learning of urban issues the presenters worked on, the second half of the seminar turned solely to the high school students. Their mission was to think of an issue they would like to work on using data and then present their projects to the larger group.

Jake McInnis III, from Kenwood Academy, shows his presentation at the conclusion of the University of Chicago Computation Institute's High School Hackathon at the Searle Chemistry Laboratory Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.      (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

Jake McInnis III, from Kenwood Academy, shows his presentation at the High School Hackathon at the Searle Chemistry Laboratory (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

Crime and incarceration came to mind for McInnis. “Crime and theft because when you check the database, every one out of five was theft, (based off the info at the top of page displaying during crime and incarceration presentation), and you could cluster it to see which groups or which communities need more police officers around so crimes won’t happen and which places need less officers because it’s not that much happening in the communities.”

McInnis created the “ Safe Hoods: Neighborhood App”.  The functionality is designed to show crime rates, detect local parks and schools, check school rankings and yell neighborhood safety. In addition, the app would also offer safe routes to and from school, the condition of surrounding parks along with locating libraries and tutoring centers.

Allen, who is also looking to get into engineering is drawn toward human behavior and what causes them to make certain decisions.

He shared, “Why do people graffiti, commit crimes and all these things. Maybe it’s peer pressure, family background or something.”

Allen said he would address the excessive drug and liquor store problem. “A lot of people go to those things. It’s a waste of their time and then it begins pressuring high school students to do that. “

His inclusion of data to possibly solve this issue: “[I would use data] to see how many people go in and out, how much they buy and the time and amount they spend in one day just to get high and drunk. Then, maybe they can shut that down and build a center to help them with that problem.”

Big Data is paving a huge road when it comes to identifying issues faced within the urban city. The use of this data further examines the root of the problem and formulates predictions as to how these problems can be prevented or lessened. In essence, the hope is to improve living.

By showing the importance of data in this respect and incorporating youth early on will encourage a broadened root of change  with new, innovative approaches and creative minds.


Data, Research and Educational Opportunities are available:

RDCEP Summer Scholars 2014 |

Chicago OpenGov Meetups |

Hack @ UChicago Hack Nights|

UChicago Promise |

Argonne Pre-College Research Participation Program |



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