I had the opportunity to attend the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania about “Big Data for the Public Good: Innovation in Civic Engagement,” from May 24 to May 27. The seminar focused on using big data as a tool for developing and improving society. During the seminar, I participated in lectures, panel discussions, site visits, as well as a volunteering activity, which helped me to develop a better understanding of the innovative ways big data is used by U.S. cities to solve critical problems such as poverty and developing the infrastructure.
During the opening dinner, Julia Stoyanovich,an assistant professor of Computer Science at Drexel University and an affiliated faculty at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton spoke about her research on data management and analysis of preference data. Her speech was an analysis on how big data can be used as a tool in civic engagement. During the speech, she explained that big data can be used as a tool to improve peoples’ lives, accelerate scientific discovery, boost innovation, transform society, and optimize business. After listening to Julia’s speech, I gained a good understanding of big data and the importance of using big data in research, society and industry. Using big data in research helps to accelerate the research process, while one of the most valuable uses of big data is as a tool for civic engagement to develop and solve societal problems. Big data is needed for industry to participate effectively in growing stable business in short time. The second speaker was Mark Wheeler, Interim Chief Information Officer of the City of Philadelphia office of Innovation and Technology. Mark explained how the city used big data as a tool for development and helping society. Mark gave some examples of using Geographic Information System (GIS) as an aid to determine empty buildings, distinguish these buildings from the parking lots, and using the collected data to help the homeless, decrease the poverty rate and decrease the crime rate.
Attending the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar onbig data enhanced my skills and knowledge on big data and how it can be used for public good. It also sparked many ideas about how big data can be used in the petroleum industry to decrease the time and effort used, which will ultimately affect the cost of the oil production. One of the most valuable examples used in the petroleum industry is collecting data from the drilled wells about the geological formation of the reservoir and using these data to drill the new wells which helps with decreasing the time drilling one well from more than a month to a week. Most of the research and the oil companies’ work on reservoir simulation by using the data gathered and built a module which can predict the production and the challenges and how to manage them. The Fulbright seminar was very useful for my degree, as the sessions and discussions supported my skills with extra tools which can be helpful in developing my research work plan.
On the second day of the seminar, there was a panel discussion about fairness in machine learning and aligning work with values. The panel included Robert Cheetham, the founder and CEO of Azavea, Aaron Roth, the class 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, with Julia Stoyanovich as moderator. This discussion enhanced my skills and enriched my knowledge about the accuracy of machine results, the importance of the accuracy of the input data, as well as demonstrating that working with value is more successful and progressive than non-ethical work.
We also had the chance to visit local organizations and one of the greatest places I have visited was Microsociety, a non-profit education service which designs innovative learning environments for K-12 students by forming simple version of society at school. The hope is that students will have the opportunity to pursue his or her dream job in this micro-society. This experience will prepare the kids for later in life and give them the tools they need to choose a career that aligns with their interests.
Dinner at Divan Turkish Restaurant was one of my favorite parts, as I got the chance to eat Mediterranean food again. One of the things I miss in Grand Forks, ND, is that there are no Mediterranean restaurants. At the dinner, I had the opportunity to get to know more Fulbrighters from Canada, Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, Indonesia, Hungary, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The volunteering experience was my favorite part of the seminar, as I had the opportunity to volunteer with Coalition Against Hunger. Coalition Against Hunger was founded in 1996 and is a soup kitchen held every Saturday at a church in Philadelphia, where they serve food and provide clothes to homeless people. Beside preparing and serving the food, I got the opportunity to give a brief talk about my beloved country Egypt. I will not forget the woman who was very excited to hear from an Egyptian and she told me that she hoped to visit the Pyramids. I talked about Cairo and Upper Egypt while my friend Sherif talked about Alexandria.
We returned to a very interactive workshop with Aylin Caliskan, a postdoctoral researcher and a fellow at Princeton University, and Julia Stoyanovich. We discussed the regulations and responsibilities of governments, professionals, and individuals in implementing big data to improve the society.
The final part of the seminar was eating very delicious Mexican food, where it was a great opportunity to talk and get to know more Fulbrighters who I did not get the chance to meet earlier in the seminar.
I cannot forget the beauty of the city of Philadelphia, the Art Museum and the Liberty Bell. Even walking in the street, you will find many beautiful paintings on the buildings and many historical places you will like to see.
It was great time to spend with my Egyptian friends as well as meet other Fulbrighters from around the world. We all had a good time exploring Philadelphia and remembering our beautiful countries.
Mohamed is studying Petroleum Engineering at North Dakota State University. He is from Egypt.