Supporting PIT Research And Learning With a Focus on Equity

Boston University's Ziba Cranmer and Azer Bestavros discuss the CDS Impact Lab on Equity.
Blog Post
Nov. 10, 2020

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2020 PIT-UN Network Challenge Grantees Ziba Cranmer and Azer Bestavros serve as co-principal investigators for the Faculty of Computing & Data Science (CDS) Impact Lab on Equity at Boston University, one of two new initiatives from CDS (along with the Justice Media co-Lab) receiving PIT-UN grants this year.

The CDS Impact Lab on Equity will support research and experiential learning opportunities for public interest technology students, particularly around issues of equity. We asked Cranmer and Bestavros about the new Lab, how it fits into the public interest technology landscape, and what they hope other institutions can learn from their work.

Where did the idea for the CDS Impact Lab on Equity come from, and what are the mission and goals of the project? What is new or innovative about this approach?

Ziba Cranmer and Azer Bestavros: The idea for the CDS Impact Lab on Equity emerged organically from the experience of BU Spark! offering experiential learning opportunities for students in public sector technology. The projects students worked have started to fall into clear thematic areas with equity as the largest. We also realized that these projects were producing valuable outputs - whether technology artifacts or datasets that were hidden in our repositories. We wanted to move from ad-hoc collaborations with students, faculty, and external partners into a more formal structure that would enhance value to all our stakeholders including publishing data and code for public access and research, deepening institutional knowledge of public interest tech projects around issues of equity, and providing longer term support to our external partners. This requires a more permanent infrastructure than we have now, which is what we have proposed and plan to pilot with the PIT-UN support.

The mission and goals of this initiative is to establish a sustainable model for supporting interdisciplinary research and experiential learning programs that provide real-world impact to our external partners, breaking down barriers between the ivory tower of academia and the public square.

There are many innovations embedded in this approach but two that we are most excited about is a process for establishing a shared research and action agenda between academia and public-sector partners and the creation of a readiness training that will prepare students, faculty, and other stakeholders to engage responsibly and empathically on equity computing and data projects.

Where does the Lab stand now, and what are your plans for the future?

The experiential learning elements and strategic partnerships key to the ILE are already in place through the Spark! X-Lab. The Lab was selected as one of the first initiatives of CDS because it represents one of five strategic priorities of the University and because this theme offers an opportunity to involve the many faculty, centers, schools and colleges who are already engaged in research and programming on equity-related topics. We are particularly excited by the opportunity to collaborate and support the work of the newly established Center for Antiracist Research.

How does/will the Lab fit into BU's plans for public interest technology research and curriculum?

There are multiple changes underway at BU that position us well to spearhead this Lab. As BU launches its new strategic plan, the CDS Impact Lab on Equity aligns with the institution’s priorities on the following fronts: impactful research; interdisciplinary academics; equity, inclusion and access.

BU created the Faculty for Computing and Data Science (CDS) in 2019 to catalyze synergy and integration of research and education programs in computing and data sciences across the landscape of academic disciplines at BU. CDS’ core substance comes from its community of researchers who believe in the potential for computational and data-driven ways of thinking and doing to advance—and transform—their disciplines. Hence, CDS provides a clean slate which allows us to pilot and institute the Impact Lab model.

The CDS Impact Lab on Equity is the first of many thematic data science labs at BU. These labs create the platform for domain experts (e.g. community activists, sociologists, medical researchers, etc.) to work with data science faculty and students and external partners on problems at the intersection of data science and the relevant discipline. Through their collaborative efforts, we hope to incubate solutions with real world impact.

How will the PIT-UN Network Challenge grant help the project?

Funding from PIT-UN will apply toward hiring a program manager who will launch and establish the Lab and the model. Critical to successful Lab operations, this person will build relevant workstreams, lead collaborative research agenda-setting, and oversee student and faculty recruitment. Beyond that, the PIT-UN Network Challenge grant helps establish a proof of concept that we hope will lead to institutional change. Because the labs will involve a curricular component, the lab has greater potential for achieving financial sustainability.

Is this work a model for other institutions to follow? Where is there need for growth or change in your field as a whole, and how does the Lab address that need?

Absolutely. We believe that the CDS Impact Lab on Equity addresses several key stakeholder needs for BU and the larger community. For BU, this lab will deliver on its strategic priorities of diversity and inclusion, vibrant academic experiences, and delivering research that matters. By building on and extending existing experiential learning initiatives, the Lab will enable experimentation with new institutional approaches to create partnerships to solve real-world problems.

The project’s long-term impact will be to serve as a replicable, scalable model for recruiting, training, and engaging passionate faculty and students in solving societal problems. From an institutional perspective, we hope the “impact labs” will form an effective model for interdisciplinary collaboration between tech and society, helping build the field of public interest technology. Equally important is our real-world impact which we work to identify a set of metrics to measure.

Anything else you'd like to share for other practitioners and researchers in similar areas?

The technology sector in academia and beyond urgently needs to build competency in inclusive, responsible and ethical computing. This is especially important when the focus of the research and applications is centered on issues of equity. There are unique considerations that are heightened when the objective is to support the development of data sets and projects that document or respond explicitly to inequity. The Impact Lab on Equity aims to develop training and processes to guide students and faculty to do this work well.

It will allow for focused learning and evolution around this competency. Sharing these resources and insights across PIT-UN will advance our collective learning about the sensitivities to internalize, pitfalls to avoid, and critical processes that can help us do this work better.

We see the lab structure as a replicable model across PIT-UN in terms of the infrastructure needed to support interdisciplinary labs around civic-technology topics. Additionally, the readiness training module for engaging in technology initiatives focused on equity, and the Equity Data Partnership Mapping Summit can be models for other universities.

Once the Impact Lab structure is established at BU, we would love to work with other Boston area schools (e.g., Wellesley, Olin, Wentworth Institute, and Umass Boston) on cross-institutional opportunities to engage faculty and students around shared interests.

We also aim to develop protocols for data governance, ethics, and privacy and a repository for sharing public and private data sets focused on equity issues. Cloud Dataverse, an open source application for accessing and processing public data sets hosted by BU, is an example of such a resource that can be shared and leveraged by other institutions.