By Lyle Moran
The mining of big data is most often undertaken for commercial purposes. That generally translates to big business, but Eric Busboom is taking a different approach.
The former Qualcomm programmer prefers to use data to tackle pressing social issues, and he created the San Diego Regional Data Library to do just that. The initiative launched in 2013 to assist nonprofits, governments and journalists in answering data-driven questions, providing help that might otherwise be financially out of reach.
“Technical folks are thrilled when they can use their technical skills to solve social problems and get some sense of meaning out of that, so I tried to put together an organization that made that connection between people who want to give back to society and the organizations who can most benefit from that,” said Busboom, 48.
Homelessness and urban planning are two hot-button social issues currently on the San Diego Regional Data Library’s radar.
In recent months, the Data Library has worked to digitize the maps of homeless person counts for the last five years collected by the Downtown San Diego Partnership. The data conversion got underway earlier this year with the assistance of Kearny High School students and more progress is expected this fall.
Busboom recently posted on the Data Library’s blog that he is seeking assistance on the project from those with so-called “computer vision” skills who can develop programs to process and analyze images to produce high-level understanding.
Busboom said he and others hope to explore the impact of potential land-use changes, such as a new housing development opening or a bus stop location changing, on the distribution of homeless populations in urban downtowns. This work could allow agencies to better anticipate the impact of those changes and adjust their strategies for tackling homelessness accordingly. The Data Library will also address questions others would like to see answered using the homeless person count data.
Busboom acknowledged that social data often does not have as much predictive value as data mined for commercial purposes, but said small tweaks to what data is collected can be extremely valuable to cash-strapped agencies.
“Datasets that are not designed for research don't have as much information in them,” Busboom said, noting that the data generally only confirms what agencies already know to be true.
However, by using a strategic approach, Busboom said the information collected and analyzed can help guide how future public policy changes are implemented.
To facilitate this, Busboom works closely with nonprofits through the Data Library and his own company, Civic Knowledge, to develop strategies for gathering and analyzing data.
For example, the Data Library collected data regarding school meal programs for the San Diego Hunger Coalition. The nonprofit’s researchers were focused on learning more about the San Diego Unified School District’s efforts to feed additional children through federally funded child nutrition programs.
“There is a lot of need for helping nonprofits have a better understanding of how their operations work, where to focus their energies, and how to solve the problems they solve,” Busboom said. “As far as a fulfilling way to do data work, I find that a lot more interesting.”
Busboom also serves on the advisory board for UC San Diego Extension’s Specialized Certificate in Data Mining for Advanced Analytics.
He said the skills program participants learn would serve them well if they decided to pursue a career working for a corporate enterprise, or, he hopes, assisting a nonprofit, think tank or governmental agency with policy analysis.
“A lot of the basic skills of preparing a data set for a business case or a scientific case are going to be the same as doing it for anything else, so those skills are broadly applicable,” Busboom said.
He would like to see UC San Diego’s data program incorporate more data pertaining to social issues in the years to come.
“Giving people a sense of how social data works, how to access it and how to use it in the context of learning the skills they are learning is really valuable,” Busboom said.