Computational Literacy for Public Policy

In the seventy years since its founding, the Columbia School of Policy and International Affairs has distinguished itself in many ways. This year will be no exception. A new Collaboratory@Columbia program, Computational Literacy for Public Policy will make sure of that. In development by Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning Adam Cannon and SIPA Adjunct Lecturer Gregory Falco, the course aims to furnish public policy master’s students with the necessary skillset to perform rudimentary data analysis. A test run of the project’s first course offering, Computing in Context for Policy, is currently underway.

“This is a transformative opportunity.” said Professor Falco “I recall a SIPA capstone class where my students sought new methods to reduce trash production in NYC. As the students performed research, it became abundantly clear that a significant amount of data analysis was necessary to determine how to measure and verify the sources of waste. When I suggested that the students input the data into Python, all I got was a classroom full of “blank stares.”

Falco boasts a background in sustainable practice implementation — most notably, he partnered with Microsoft to design and implement the Smart City systems in Seattle and Chicago. Since Falco’s experience lies in using sensors and data to improve city environments, he is particularly well-equipped to bridge the gap between technological innovation and public policy. Though he doesn’t necessarily want to transform policy students into “coding experts,” he sees some degree of computational literacy as a baseline requirement for any aspiring policymaker.

The program is structured in two parts: the Computing in Context for Policy course, and a Capstone Workshops course for thesis projects. Whereas traditional SIPA capstone projects began when NYC officials asked Columbia to consult on a problem they faced, this new project has grant funding specifically for capstone projects. Falco specified that funding support projects which can demonstrate “heavy data availability” for entry into Python. This increased flexibility of choice for capstone projects is fairly unprecedented at SIPA, and for that reason, Computational Literacy for Public Policy presents a unique opportunity for Columbia policy students to transform policy as a discipline.

About the Collaboratory Fellows Fund:
Technology and massive data are reshaping society in profound ways. To be effective, the leaders of tomorrow will need to understand how these transformations are impacting their professions, now and in the future. The Collaboratory Fellows Fund is developing the coursework to allow students to master the technical skills and cultivate the creative thinking to confront the unique challenges in their chosen careers.






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