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Data Jam introduces students to big data and big opportunities

Deanna Lee
May19/ 2015

“Every time we go on a browser, upload a picture or send a tweet, we are contributing to the massive amount of data out there in the world,” says Saman Haqqi, founder and president of Pittsburgh Dataworks. She’s describing the idea of “big data,” a term used to sum up the huge amounts of online information generated by people all over the world.

As the technology we use evolves, big data is getting even bigger. And according to Haqqi, so is its usefulness. “We can now store data easily and process it much more quickly and inexpensively,” she says. “Companies want to use it to improve their decision-making and operations.” And those companies are ready with jobs for our young people—lots of them.

One goal of Pittsburgh Dataworks is to help students pursue careers in the field of data science. “The career implications of big data are significant,” Haqqi says. “If we can help anyone veer in that direction and find a passion for it, we’re accomplishing our goal.” The organization’s annual Data Jam competition bring this mission to youth in the Pittsburgh area, introducing them to the concept of big data and letting them dive into some of its endless applications.

Data Jam is a six-week challenge where students from eight schools compete to solve big data challenges. The teams (made up of students in grades nine through 12) select their problem, work with a teacher-mentor over the course of the competition and then present their analyses to peers and a panel of judges at a competition in the spring.

Students in the 2015 competition tackled a wide range of issues—from pot holes to Pittsburgh Pirates’ home runs to high school graduation rates. The winning team, from Bethel Park High School, studied which economic policies have the greatest impact on the growth of a neighborhood. Their conclusion? Spending in education has the most measurable impact on economic growth–an important discovery for a state and a city struggling with school funding inequities.

Using big data to answer questions like this is just one example of the field’s reach and impact. And Haqqi wants everyone to understand that data science is not just about crunching numbers. “It’s about curiosity and asking the right questions,” says Haqqi. “Whatever profession you’re going to be in—from a doctor to a historian—you are going to be working with data. And it’s all about how you use it.”

Pittsburgh Dataworks is looking to grow the program, and Haqqi encourages all parents, schools and students with interest to email info@pittsburghdataworks.com for more details.

Featured photo: Participants in Data Jam, photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Dataworks

Deanna Lee

Deanna earnestly covers all the people and events that make Pittsburgh the best place to raise a kid. When she's not writing, you might find her running the streets of the East End. cooking big meals in her tiny kitchen, and spending time with her family.