Data students tackle projects ranging from local food markets and business support to AI and housing

The Data Science for the Public Good housing team works with research scientist Liesl Eathington.

This summer, Data Science for the Public Good (DSPG) Young Scholars program united eleven eager scholars across Iowa. Immersed in the program, these scholars—seven undergraduates and four graduates—harnessed statistics, computation, and social insights, laying the groundwork to effect change in Iowa communities.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development (CED) unit has worked with DSPG Young Scholars for four years. However, 2023 was the first year that it was conducted primarily in person.

“Opportunities like DSPG, which blend a keen drive to address societal challenges with the nuances of data science, are invaluable learning platforms,” said Harun Çelik, a PhD student in history at ISU.

Having participated in the DSPG program twice, Çelik emphasized its holistic approach to data science: “It’s taught me that mastering the technical aspects is just half the battle. The true art lies in understanding the rationale behind our work and leveraging our skills to address pressing public concerns.”

The DSPG Young Scholars undertook one of three distinct projects while collectively collaborating on a fourth. Two of these initiatives, backed by the AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture (AIIRA), aimed to address both local agriculture and rural housing.

Guided by Rakesh Shah, CED specialist, and Lisa Bates, CED assistant director and community development specialist, students delved into the “Data-Driven Insights for Local Food Markets” project, aiming to rejuvenate local food markets by using insights to optimize crop distribution. Similarly, with Liesl Eathington, CED research scientist, and Chris Seeger, DSPG program director and professor of landscape architecture, at the helm, students embarked on the “AI-Driven Housing Evaluation for Rural Community Development” initiative. Utilizing web-scraping techniques, they began training an AI model to quickly identify housing conditions and help inform decision-making for rural housing investment and development initiatives. Both projects will be continued during the 2024 DSPG Program.

Reflecting on the experience, Seeger said, “Witnessing our students during DSPG, I saw more than just data management and coding. It was the teamwork, co-learning of skills, and growth that stood out.”

Under the expert guidance of Bailey Hanson, CED GIS and data analyst, students explored local food business support. The Food, Farm, and Enterprise Development (FFED) unit generously sponsored this third initiative. The project, “Using Data to Inform Decision Making for Rural Grocery Stores,” had students actively developing a tool to help provide users with information on opening, inheriting, and operating a grocery store in their preferred rural location. 

The final project, Walking Infrastructure Investigation (WINVEST), which all 11 scholars worked on, was led by Seeger and Gary Taylor, professor of community and regional planning. Funded by the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, this project partnered with the councils of governments (CoGs) to provide on-the-ground data collection to accurately assess and map community infrastructure features to identify multiple projects appropriate for CDBG infrastructure funding. The DSPG team visited neighborhoods in Grundy Center, New Hampton, and Independence.

“The projects our scholars undertook this summer aren’t just academic exercises—they hold the promise of real-world impact. Seeing students work together makes me excited about the future of data-driven solutions in addressing our community challenges. I’m already looking forward to the next DSPG program, where we’ll continue to foster this spirit of innovation and community impact,” said Seeger. 

Links to the project descriptions and final presentations are available on the DSPG website. Additional CED members helping with this year’s DSPG program include assistant scientist Sandra Burke and data analyst Jay Maxwell.