Data Science for the United Nations: 5 students in Chile

Prof. Hilbert and a team of five UC Davis students are developing a big data online observatory for the UN Secretariat in Latin America and the Caribbean. The project explores how public online data can be used to inform international development policies. Three students spent three months in Chile, while two others continue to stay there for even longer, and one new student will be joining the team.


Big Data

The United Nations is the main clearinghouse of international statistics. The organization has become aware of the opportunities and threats posed by the digital revolution for its statistical work, and has started to explore the consequences of working with digital trace data for the public good. For example, job market sites can disclose labor market dynamics, retail sites can reveal price barriers for technology diffusion, and social media sites can expose gender inequalities and the awareness about the global ambitions formulated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Prof. Hilbert, a retired UN officer, has gathered a team of UC Davis students to assist the United Nations Regional Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to exploit the ensuing opportunities and to thoroughly understand the arising challenges. The team collects online data from publicly available sources, either obtained by web-scraping public websites and by accessing APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) provided by platforms and companies. Together with UN officers, five priorities have been identified (among them labor market dynamics, technology price developments, gender issues, Sustainable Development Goals, and small- and medium-sized enterprises), and based on the collected data, the team develops dashboards that can be used by officers to inform their policy analysis.


tech prices


radar graph

"When thinking about the 'big data' paradigm" explains Prof. Hilbert, "we usually think of private business services, not about the global public good and about ambitions like ending poverty and assuring gender equality. We find many untapped possibilities here. We are learning a lot while exploring them. Naively, we also tend to imagine that with sufficient computational skills, one simply would need to go online, collect digital data, and the entirety of reality would suddenly stand point-blank in front of any observer in real time. In reality, the result is more reminiscent of the proverbial inspection of an elephant, where data scientists take the role of the blind men touching very distinct and separate parts of the whole, never being able to grasp it all at once, but trying to piece irreconcilable pieces of evidence together.  Making sense of 'big data' includes computer challenges, but goes further, and touches on the definition of data science as the convergence between computer science, statistics, and its substantive application area. Questions of representativeness, generalizability, harmonization, variable definition, and data quality quickly become the main concerns. Putting this to work for international development requires more than skills and knowledge. It requires a dedicated team, with lots of patience and good-will."

The team of students includes Xin Jin, a Computer Science major in his Senior year; Matt Reese, a fresh (Dec'18) Linguistics and Chinese bachelor; Yu-Chang (Andy) Ho, a current M.S. student in Computer Science; Karla Rascón-García, a current PhD student in Epidemiology; and Veronika Vilgis, a post-doc researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis. All of them took the offer for a direct contract with the UN and worked at the UN headquarters in Santiago, Chile from January to March, 2019, with some continuing to stay there.

team of students

"This has been a wonderful experience applying our data science skills to tackle real world problems for the UN, immersing ourselves in Chilean culture and making new connections" says Veronika, the most senior researcher of the student group. Andy adds that it is a "treasure of an experience, applying our computer science knowledge for infrastructure establishment and the pursue of performance to achieve real-world goals. It feels a bit like being a hacker for a good cause, but you still scream out loud when our office computer crashes from data overload, just like in school." Karla, who grew up in a Mexican-American family in California, says that her main upfront challenge was "to learn the Chilean slang". Matt, who undertook this excursion between his bachelor graduation and his PhD at Linguistics (both at UC Davis), sums the experience up with: "Living and working in Chile was an amazing experience, allowing me to implement my knowledge from the classroom in a real way, and to gain a glimpse into the rich culture and history of the people here. In one word, it was "bacán"!"


For more see:

Big data for measuring and fostering the digital economy in Latin America

Digital Footprints from Latin America and the Caribbean (Huellas digitales de América Latina y el Caribe)