Dig into data at high speed

Two Willamette students recently won second place in an international data science competition – an achievement the university hopes to see more of in the future.

Oscar Wecker ’21 and Izzy Pfander ’21

Oscar Wecker ’22 and Izzy Pfander ’21 – respectively a major in anthropology and a double major in environmental sciences and computer science, respectively – were recognized in July for their exemplary use of data as part of the Florence Nightingale Prize of the International Statistical Institute (ISI) for data visualization. The prize was awarded as part of the International Year of Women in Statistics and Data Science.

The team first presented their work in May at Willamette’s inaugural DataFest, a 48-hour statistical analysis competition for undergraduates nationwide through the American Statistical Association. (ASA). Only finalists from participating DataFest colleges were eligible for the Florence Nightingale Award, named after the 1800s pioneer in statistics and data visualization.

DataFest works similarly to hackathons: teams typically work together on large data sets throughout the night and cover relevant topics such as increasing voter turnout.

At the Willamette event – her first time – students examined survey data from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Safety Center to uncover and identify patterns of drug use and abuse. Pfander and Wecker practically rivaled 42 undergraduates from Willamette, Reed College and Portland State University. Students graduating from the MSc in Data Science program mentored teams and helped create tutorials for undergraduates.

For their presentation, Pfander and Wecker analyzed how topography and elevation change in the United States affected illicit drug use in 2019. This was built on a theory emanating from political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, who found that populations at higher elevations in Southeast Asia are more likely to resist government control due to the difficulty of elevation and mountainous terrain posed to governance. The pair also used spatial relationships and prediction algorithms to find out how drug use was distributed geographically as well as how certain uses of illicit drugs can predict other uses.

Wecker said he appreciated the spontaneity and time pressure of the event. Rules don’t always crush creativity, he said, and sometimes they force you to think outside the box.

“Hackathons and competitions like this are low risk, fun, and a great way to get started with a project or idea you never thought of,” he said. “Even if you are not able to produce real results over the period of time, you can still do surprisingly well in these competitions and learn a lot.”

Data challenges also have value beyond college. Wecker, who along with Pfander and two other Willamette students won the 2019 Lewis and Clark Hackathon, said he wanted to continue working with data in human and culture-related research.

“I’m particularly interested in trying to quantify things that are generally unquantifiable, and some of these may take the form of algorithms that can read emotions, natural language processing, and of course, information such as data. investigation, ”he said. “Data ethics is also very important. ”

Albaugh, Assistant Professor of Statistics, Heather Kitada Smalley, who nominated Wecker and Pfander for the Florence Nightingale Award, introduced Willamette to the challenges of data. In 2019 and 2020, she mentored students from the ASA Fall Data Challenge – the Willamette teams won the award for best visualization in both years – and organized the university’s DataFest.

Transformative and engaging learning experiences like these are a hallmark of Smalley’s courses, where students develop skills in statistical analysis and critical thinking by working on real data sets and studying the statistical programming language. ” R “. , another example of Smalley’s holistic approach.

In the future, she hopes to organize DataFest every year as an event to build a data science community in schools in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m really passionate about involving students in analyzing real-world data and showing them how the skills they learn in the classroom translate into interesting problems,” she said. .

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