Magic City Data Collective: UAB students helping solve community challenges through data analysis

Magic City Data Collective: UAB students helping solve community challenges through data analysis
The Magic City Data Collective, a public-private partnership, brings together students, researchers and data experts in project teams to provide the information Birmingham leaders need to move the Magic City forward. (UAB)

For UAB student Darryl McIntosh, computer programming was not just a personal passion but a career path in which he saw great potential. While fond of programming, McIntosh viewed his skill set as one-dimensional until his exposure to the world of data science and analysis as a fellow in the first cohort of the Magic City Data Collective.

Creating a data talent pipeline

UAB President Ray Watts speaks to MCDC students about their internship experiences and the impact of their work on local businesses. (UAB)

The pilot project of UAB, the Birmingham Business Alliance and Birmingham Education Foundation is supported through a one-year grant from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. MCDC provides UAB students paid internship opportunities to increase data analysis skills by working with local private-sector employers in education, philanthropy and technology. The partnership aims to build a diverse pipeline that connects qualified students to companies with data-specific needs.

“The Magic City Data Collective reinforces UAB’s commitment to making sure our students have the ability to develop skills that help them look at large amounts of data, find patterns and trends, and ask questions to better understand the world around them,” said UAB President Ray Watts. “It’s critical that we provide opportunities to take classroom learning one step further, and the Magic City Data Collective is doing just that by partnering with our local business community to shape the next generation of talent that will move Birmingham and our world forward.”

Working in project teams, undergraduate and graduate MCDC fellows, with academic backgrounds in areas such as computer science and physics, collected and analyzed data, developed and tested hypotheses, and learned what it means to use data in a team setting – all while better understanding and solving community problems.

Through such data analysis, UAB fellows provided real-world solutions and support for partner companies and stakeholders. Fellows took part in data collection projects including:

  • Building a talent dashboard that identified tech workforce trends in Birmingham as compared to peer metros.
  • Creating a Birmingham City Schools report card that combined quantitative data from the state, along with qualitative data from parents, families and students, to better understand school success.
  • Analyzing historical philanthropic trends of the Protective Foundation, and making recommendations about future giving priorities.
  • Using machine learning to identify trends and make predictions about why Alabama college students stay in Alabama to work or leave the state after graduation.

McIntosh said his experience supporting the Birmingham Education Foundation on its school report cards project transcended the traditional classroom knowledge to which he was accustomed. It taught him about how businesses forecast problems, to see projects through start to finish and how to work within deadlines. The end-of-semester project presentations at Demo Day taught him how to communicate with community stakeholders.

“The experience I gained in data science has opened up a new world of career options for me and the way that I view the role of coding,” said McIntosh, a senior majoring in computer science. “Through my fellowship, I was able to see that, while a company may have a loose conclusion in mind about something impacting their organization, we have the ability to determine a concrete answer for them through data collection. Quantifying information is really satisfying and has taught me how to look at things from an objective point of view to provide solutions that will help leaders make good decisions.”

His involvement in MCDC gave McIntosh a broader view of where his data-collection skills can make a difference. In understanding the vital role of data collection to nearly every business, nonprofit, organization and municipality looking to solve problems, he is confident that his skills will translate and be valuable to a wide array of employers.

Investing in the next generation

Partners such as Birmingham Business Alliance, Protective, Landing, Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and Birmingham Education Foundation are able to invest in community development projects, and are critical in helping to widen the data talent channel for underrepresented Birmingham students and connect them to future employment opportunities, said said Cori Fain, director of Economic Development and Community Engagement at Landing.

“Magic City Data Collective gives Birmingham students the opportunity to practice their existing data skills and build new ones – all while participating in paid internships that help our city make data-driven decisions,” Fain said. “This kind of real-world work experience makes these students attractive hires after graduation. Moreover, we know that students who participate in internships are far more likely to get a full-time job in the same city, and retaining top talent in Birmingham should be a priority for all of our businesses and universities.”

Fain added that paying students for their work and critical contributions to these projects is an important part of ensuring this opportunity is accessible to students of all backgrounds.

“When we create paid internship opportunities for students, our community, economy and businesses also win,” Fain said. “The beauty of an initiative like Magic City Data Collective is that it will continue to grow and connect a diverse group of students with community partners who will, in turn, hopefully invest back in the next generation. This will only strengthen the field of data science and will make an impact in our city, state and beyond.”

The next cohort of MCDC fellows will start community projects in January 2022. Students interested in applying to MCDC, or community partners looking to get involved, may contact Emily Wykle at [email protected].

This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.

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