Rayid Ghani, Obama campaign chief data scientist, joins UChicago

Rayid Ghani, chief scientist of the highly regarded Obama for America data analytics team, has joined the University of Chicago to explore using data to solve complex social problems.

During the 2012 campaign season, Ghani’s team applied advanced data-mining and machine-learning methods to create new tools for fundraising, voter turnout, advertising and campaign strategy. Now, working with the Computation Institute and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Ghani hopes to adapt those methods to address challenges in areas such as education, public safety and health care.

“Chicago Harris is taking important steps to prepare public policy students to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues by harnessing the power of big data,” Chicago Harris Dean Colm O’Muircheartaigh said. “Rayid’s expertise, experience and vision will be integral to these efforts, and allow us to expand our ambitions for this work.”

At UChicago, Ghani will serve as Chief Data Scientist for the Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data, where he will help analyze city data and build complex computer models that simulate the impact of policy decisions and urban development.

“The Computation Institute unites computational experts and tools with thought leaders from multiple disciplines to find solutions to the hardest problems that face our world today,” said Ian Foster, Computation Institute director. “We are thrilled that Rayid Ghani is bringing his extensive knowledge and creative talents to this vital effort using data and computation to improve how cities around the world grow and operate.”

In addition, he will work with Chicago Harris on an array of efforts, including the launch of a new masters degree program in data-driven policymaking to be offered jointly with the Department of Computer Science, and a conference on urban technology innovation in partnership with the City of Chicago.

“I’m interested in large social problems that impact individuals,” Ghani said. “I want to help create people who can solve those problems and are excited about those problems, and I also want to work on those problems and bring people together from computer science, statistics, policy and social sciences. All those things came together at the University of Chicago.”

Before joining the Obama re-election campaign in July 2011, Ghani directed the analytics research group at Accenture Technology Labs, mining large datasets with computational methods to study consumer behavior. During the campaign, Ghani turned his attention to voter preferences, using data from social media, campaign surveys and other sources to develop personalized approaches to solicit donations or register voters.

After the election, the success of the analytics team and their tools was profiled by media outlets including The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times and CNN/TIME. Ghani said the experience of the campaign inspired him to apply data science to challenges beyond politics, such as high school graduation rates, energy conservation or patient safety.

“The campaign was helpful in demonstrating that this work can be done at a large scale,” Ghani said. “If you put the right people together and build the right tools and motivate people the right way, you can actually mobilize them for a specific cause.”

Ghani’s first project with UChicago is The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for the Social Good Summer Fellowship, which attracted 545 applications this spring. Fellows with backgrounds in computer science, programming and statistics will spend three months in Chicago working with academic and business advisors on projects of social importance.

“The goal of this fellowship is to train these students in solving real problems and also long-term create a culture of data scientists thinking about social problems,” Ghani said.