Tap the Power of Data Science with Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy
The CDS Visiting Associate professor discusses the intersection of data science and social sciences during NYU Data Services’ Data Insight Week
“Data science is truly interdisciplinary,” said Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy during an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session held during NYU Data Services’ Data Insight Week on September 21st. “It has allowed me to be interested in a lot of different things without seeming like I’m totally scattered.” The Visiting Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at CDS teaches Data Science for Everyone as well as works as a research consultant and speaker. The Discord conversation facilitated by Data Services Specialist Patrick Bond gave attendees the opportunity to get the inside scoop from the researcher about the intersection of data science and social sciences.
To start the conversation, Andrea shared how they broke into the field of data science in the first place. After an inspiring international relations course during their undergraduate studies, Andrea headed off to the University of Michigan to study war, peace, and the fundamentals of human nature. Instead, they got numbers. The master’s program had a strong quantitative research bent and by brute force, the scholar had to face their initial resistance to statistics and programming. “Over the years, I went from being very resistant to it to thinking it was quite powerful and interesting,” said Andrea.
What they found most compelling was how data could be used to quantify political questions. For example, how political stability or the happiness of citizens could be turned into numbers in order to predict and explain social phenomena. “It’s at the intersection of turning the big, messy, complex world into numbers in a way that is hopefully reflective of reality, even though we never quite get there perfectly,” said Andrea.
Their response prompted a question about the differences in the research processes of data science and social science. “I would say data science is mostly concerned with the development and utilization of methods,” said Andrea. While data science is focused on the methodologies of processing information, social sciences are more driven by substantive social and political questions. Andrea added they are a big proponent of knowing what data stands for and the need for more conversation between the qualitative and quantitative approaches to the social sciences.
Over their years as a professor, they explained they have generally noticed those with analytical programming experience have an easier time carrying out their projects but are more challenged with real-world applications. Those with background experience in social sciences might wrestle more with the technical side but find it easier to come up with real-world issues that data science can help solve. Their advice for folks staring out on the field would be to gain experience in both approaches and “fuel both parts of your world.”
The discussion continued with a question about what excites and scares the professor the most about how data is used to promote social advocacy and explore political issues. “What’s exciting and what I’m afraid of are 100% the same thing,” said Andrea. They explained that data science is becoming more accessible and easier to implement. The analytical power at our fingertips is encouraging, but data can be easily misused, biased, or manipulated to say whatever we need it to. They added the growing field of data science has led to a lot of elitism and gatekeeping.
As a self-proclaimed “data skeptic,” Andrea explains it’s important to be critical about the data we use. They said it’s important to think about how we might disadvantage certain groups simply by not collecting data in specific areas, effectively easing the experience of certain groups, or how local privacy laws may prevent the collection of certain data sets.
In talking about the ethical use and management of data, a question was asked about best practices within the field. Andrea emphasized the importance of documentation and discussed privacy concerns surrounding big data. As a data science consultant for companies, they are often shocked by the lack of security on sensitive data sets such as information about employee performance.
As a final question to wrap up the session, Andrea was asked if they had any upcoming comedy shows. “If anyone is really in the mood to suffer, I have a midnight show tonight,” they said. In addition to their career in academia, Andrea is a standup comedian and circus artist. They will have more shows in October at the Grisly Pear Comedy Club in Greenwich Village for all those who are interested in stopping by.
By Meryl Phair