Today, “big data” is no longer a buzzword but rather an integral part and driving force of nearly every industry. That’s why educators have long been teaching — and also learning themselves — the power of data in an effort to prepare their students for the modern world. Quality data is a valuable tool that can uncover specific insights needed to take action, solve problems and achieve better outcomes in our communities, businesses and individual lives. But unless you are a data scientist or data engineer, you may not have the data skills to do so on your own. That’s why bridging the gap between data and action has been the main focus of my career for nearly two decades, continuing today at Belmont University in Nashville as executive director of the 2-year-old Belmont Data Collaborative.
A holistic approach to data skills
The collaborative, a universitywide initiative, looks to do good within our local community by equipping students, local businesses and others with the skills and tools needed to turn data into positive action. We try to infuse data literacy and fluency into every discipline.
The collaborative also coordinates and promotes data programs across the university and the region, developing a diverse community of scientists, organizational managers, leaders, faculty and students who will bring a moral, ethical and social compass to their use of data analytics. We blend our degree and nondegree instructional programs with co-curricular activities and real-world experiences. And we partner with local organizations and key industries — such as health services, music and entertainment and tech — to provide employers with graduates possessing highly sought data skills.
The data trifecta
Our data mission is made up of three important parts. We want the concept of “data for good” to be at the center of all the experiences we provide.
Our chief curricular goal is “data for all.” We start by crafting a data mindset that we apply in all projects. This mindset takes students from dilemma to data to insights to action. These data skills are intended to help students succeed and make an impact in the workforce.
The third component is “data for diversity.” We want to make sure our students are always leveraging diversity of thought. We’re able to empower all people to be actionable with data by applying a diversity lens to everything we do.
Our community-based projects
The collaborative already has had the opportunity to assist with and plan for several real-world projects involving high school students, undergraduate students, graduate students and local business professionals.
In one of our first initiatives, undergraduate students from multiple disciplines were charged with examining health inequities related to hypertension in Nashville in collaboration with several key community and health care organizations. We first gained an understanding of this potential dilemma and then dove headfirst into the data, and we were ultimately able to share our findings to empower others to take action within their community.
Another project involved working with CDC data and people-based predictive data donated to us by AnalyticsIQ as part of their University Partner Program in an effort to identify communities potentially vulnerable to poor mental health. Our MBA interns began by helping to gather and examine data that represented the social determinants of mental health to understand the prevalence of poor mental health days in different areas. Then, the teams rolled up the people-based data provided by our partner to zip code and community levels.
By leveraging these data sources in conjunction, our students used data skills to glean some very interesting insights. For example, they saw that communities where people watched TV late into the night also had a higher prevalence of poor mental health data. This type of information empowers organizations and nonprofits in Nashville to drive change within the community; the people-based data we help provide crafts a data story that everyone can understand and relate to.
Seeing real-world data come to life and deliver the insight needed to empower individuals and organizations to achieve better outcomes is inspiring and proves data can be a catalyst for change.
Turn data skills into action
Having a genuine desire to do good with data is where the magic can happen. To gift students with data skills and a resource center like the Belmont Data Collaborative, a school needs a nonstop, data-teaching expert to champion the campus initiative and pull in community support. The initiative’s leader will need to convene people who want to work hard to solve problems. And, of course, it will need quality data that can lead to action.
Getting out and collaborating with faculty members, public officials, business leaders and data partners will help identify problems and even uncover the resources to solve them. More of us in K-12 and higher education need to share our passion for the empowering force of data — data for good, data for all and data for diversity — with students and the community.
Charles Apigian, Ph.D., is a professor and the executive director of the Belmont Data Collaborative at Belmont University. Apigian’s focus and passion is on working with the Nashville community to be a leader in technology and data science and to bridge the gap between academics and industry to enable the use of data for the social good. The collaborative has worked in conjunction with AnalyticsIQ and its University Partner Program.
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