Using Data to Tackle Real-Time Challenges for DC

GW’s new Data-Capable DC Initiative seeks to build a more robust data ecology among local experts.

March 25, 2019

professor's gate

By Kristen Mitchell

A new George Washington University cross disciplinary project aims to better understand some of the D.C. metropolitan area’s most complex challenges using real-time data.

GW’s new Data-Capable DC Initiative—led by physics professor Neil Johnson— is exploring ways to sync its work with local governments, including the District of Columbia.

“I see this as an absolutely fantastic opportunity for GW going forward, to have this real time interaction,” Dr. Johnson said. “The students will get the benefit of interacting with the D.C. government and working on a very real problem, a very important problem, and we get more knowledge on the real world.”

GW’s Data-Capable DC Initiative—sometimes referred to as DC-squared—is made up of Dr. Johnson; David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Donald Braman, an associate professor at GW Law. GW students also will work with the team and have opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways to real-world research and data analysis.

The group, formed earlier this year, already has started working on two projects. The first seeks to understand what factors are contributing to the rising number of hate crimes in D.C. The second looks at how online communities that promote alternative health remedies and discourage the use of vaccinations and pharmaceuticals interact with the offline world.  

Using online community information and maps that show where these health groups tend to cluster across the city’s neighborhoods, D.C. officials could craft better-informed educational efforts for public health outreach. They could determine where they are more likely to see outbreaks of treatable diseases and allocate limited resources accordingly.

“These are real problems the city has to deal with, and we at GW have the academic resources to help address them,” Dr. Johnson said.

The GW team also will be able to take current data and build different models to test out proposed plans of action. Computational modeling will give city officials information on what would be the likely result of a new pilot program without having to try it out first for six months.

The Data-Capable DC Initiative was born out of conversations about how GW could work toward creating a more robust data ecology in the city. Dr. Braman worked with his connections within the D.C. government to develop this mutually-beneficial relationship, Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Braman is both a professor at GW Law and a senior social scientist in The Lab @ DC—a team based in the executive office of the D.C. mayor that uses scientific insights and methods to test and improve policies and provide timely and relevant analysis to inform the District's most important decisions.

In a letter to the university, Sam Quinney, interim director of The Lab @ DC, said, “DC-squared has the potential to contribute to a dynamic and fast-growing community of data scientists and data-driven initiatives. The Lab strongly supports DC-squared’s focus on stronger evidence for a stronger D.C.”

Dr. Johnson said this type of meaningful engagement with the city offers students the opportunity to put the skills they are learning in the classroom to work. Unlike a traditional homework problem, they will be able to use real data to tackle real problems while implementing machine learning and data analysis concepts, he said. Students will be able to give back to the community in a meaningful way and become more data capable along the way, Dr. Johnson explained.

While many universities interact with their communities and local governments, those projects tend to be very distilled and removed from the primary issue at hand, Dr. Johnson said. It’s also common for there to be a significant delay in publication, which means that by the time results of a study are published, the data is no longer as informative. Dr. Johnson said the real-time aspect of this project will sidestep those concerns.


If any undergraduate students, graduate students or faculty are interested in joining this initiative, please contact Neil Johnson ([email protected]). No previous experience or specific skill required.