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SIPA offers new coding class to help students augment policy analysis

Computing in Context, a course in Columbia University’s Computer Science department, has added a new track designed for SIPA students that will teach computational concepts and coding in the context of solving policy problems.

Enrolled students will be taught by both a computer-science professor, who lectures on basic computer and programming skills while teaching students to think like computer scientists, and by a SIPA professor who shows how those skills can augment traditional policy analysis. Projects and assignments will be geared for the policy arena to give students a command of technical solutions for problems they are likely to encounter in their classes and future work.

SIPA’s is the first new track to be added since Computing in Context debuted in spring 2015 with tracks in digital humanities, social science, and economics and finance. Aimed at liberal-arts majors who might not otherwise take computer science, Computing in Context is the first of its kind to provide a contextualized introduction that combines algorithmic thinking and programming with projects and assignments from different liberal-arts disciplines.

How much should students in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) know about computer science?

In a digital world when information is being collected at unprecedented rates and as government decision-making becomes more data driven, computer science is fast becoming fundamental to policy analysis. Computational methods offer an efficient way to navigate and assess a variety of systems and their data, and make it possible to comb even massive data sets for subtle patterns that might otherwise go undiscovered. A relatively small amount of code can replace tedious, time-consuming manual efforts to gather data and refine it for analysis.

As machine learning and text mining turn texts into data analyzable by a computer, computational methods once reserved for quantitative data can now be applied to almost any type of document—emails, tweets, public records, transcripts of hearings—or to a corpus of tens or hundreds of thousands of documents. These new methods for computationally analyzing texts and documents make computer science relevant to humanities and social science disciplines that traditionally have not been studied computationally. Social science majors may analyze vast numbers of social media posts, English majors may automate stylistic analyses of literary works, finance students may mine data for new economic trends.

Liberal-arts students have been increasingly skipping the cursory computer-science class intended for non-majors (1001) and enrolling in computer-science classes alongside computer-science majors. Adam Cannon, who has been teaching introductory computer science for 15 years has watched the number of liberal-arts students in his classes climb to the point where they have surpassed the number of computer-science majors.

“These students want more than an appreciation of computer science,” he said. “They want to apply computer-science techniques in their own fields.”

Computer science within a context

Algorithmic thinking is critical for designing solutions to new problems and analyzing new data sets, but the nature of the problems and the data sets depends on the particular field of study. Different liberal-arts disciplines require different kinds of computational proficiency; for this reason, Computing in Context maintains separate tracks for each discipline, with each track taught by a different professor. The class debuted with three tracks: social science, digital humanities, and economics and financing. All students take the computer-science component and learn the same basic concepts, but then divide into separate tracks to learn how those concepts apply to their particular discipline.

It’s a modular design that makes it easy to insert additional tracks as more departments and professional schools act to make computer-science part of their students’ curriculum. The first time a new track is offered, a professor from that department lectures live, and then records those lectures for future semesters. This flipped classroom approach—where students view videos of lectures outside class and use classroom time to discuss the content of those videos—helps make the class financially sustainable since each new track represents a one-time expense.

SIPA’s is the first track to be added since Computing in Context was introduced and is being taught by Gregory Falco, a Columbia adjunct faculty member who is also an executive at Accenture and is currently pursuing his PhD in Cybersecurity of Critical Urban Infrastructure at MIT. With an MS in Sustainability Management from Columbia University, Falco specializes in applying data, analytics, and sensors to solve complex sustainability and security policy problems.

Having Falco teach a track within Computing in Context is part of SIPA’s commitment to deeply integrating technology courses into its curriculum and equipping students with a robust tech and computer-science skill set. It is one way Deans Merit Janow and Dan McIntyre are helping Falco pioneer the next generation of policy education.

What SIPA students can expect

For the first six weeks of the course, SIPA students will attend the twice-weekly lectures on computer science along with all other students. At the halfway point, the track lectures kick in, and SIPA students go to lectures given by Falco, who will also assign homework and projects geared specifically to public policy. While economics and financing students price options and digital humanities students run sentiment analysis on tweets, SIPA students might be troubleshooting sources of environmental pollution, evaluating the effectiveness of public housing policy, or determining the impact of local financial markets on international healthcare or education.

Considering SIPA is a professional school, Falco’s lectures and assignments are aimed at helping students integrate and transition what they learn in the classroom to the professional setting and job market.

Unlike other tracks, the SIPA track will always have live lectures each time it is given. The changing relevance of policy problems requires a class constantly evolving for current events. Also, the skills SIPA students learn in Computing in Context will be integrated into their capstone research projects that serve as graduate theses; since Falco teaches both Computing in Context and will advise research projects, his constant, in-class presence will provide a more continuous resource of expertise on data and computing for SIPA students.

“This is a one-of-a-kind, very cool policy class because it enables SIPA students to think like computer scientists and see the art of the possible in relation to how technology, data analytics, and artificial intelligence can be used to address policy problems,” says Falco. “Beyond coding, the class helps foster the language of digital literacy which is invaluable in the professional world for policy practitioners.”

The SIPA track will be the first test of how well Computing in Context can scale to meet demand, which is only expected to grow as more departments and schools like SIPA integrate computer science into their curricula.

— Linda Crane

Thanks to the Department of Computer Science. This article has been adapted from the longer original version.

A Typical Day . . .

I don’t know that any day at SIPA is considered “typical” – to me it seems like every day here is a major conference.  Every bill board in the building is plastered several layers deep with fliers promoting panels, events, and discussions of all sorts.  However, Anesa Diaz-Uda, a second-year MPA student, put the following together to describe a recent day in her life as a SIPA student . . .


I’ve been spending some time on the Message Board, and thought answering, “What’s a typical day like?” might be helpful.  Well, here’e my schedule from a recent Thursday:

8-11: Capstone Project

My team and I went to the Mexican Consulate to meet with the Consulate General’s Chief-of-Staff.  We were welcomed, and then left the Mexican Consulate to visit the Guatemalan and Peruvian Consulates.  At each Consulate, we went over the various processes, services and products delivered, and met with each respective Consulate General.  It was a fast, but great fact finding mission.  Hopefull we can use the information garnered to offer a fuller comparative study for our final product.

12-2:  Lecture at SIPA with Stiglitz, Patnaik, Sundaran and Lin

I’ve seen Stiglitz a few times, but always enjoy another opportunity to hear about his work.  Here’s a blurb from the website about the lecture I attended.

The Continuing Financial Crisis: Perspectives from the North and the South

Thursday, March 25, 2010, 12:00pm – Davis Auditorium, the Schapiro Center

This talk on “Taking Stock of the Financial Crisis” will feature Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laurette and University Professor at Columbia University; Prabhat Patnaik, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Founder and Chair of International Development Economics Associates and Board member of the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development, Geneva, and Justin Yifu Lin, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank.

The Heyman Center always has great events, and here’s a link to this specific lecture, but will allow to jump to other resources and events.

2-4: Management Seminar with Thoman

This course meets once a week, has 16 students and is typically a round table discussion with Professor Rick Thoman (former Executive Officer at American Express, CFO at IBM CFO and most recently CEO of Xerox).  Professor Thoman also holds three graduate degrees from the Fletcher School at Tufts, so is familiar with the international affairs degree.  He offers keen and honest insight and advice, and it’s been a really enjoyable class.  The course is offered at SIPA, and is called “Managing the Global Corporation.”  Specific topics include:

• Why have Global Companies developed?

• What is the creative destruction model and why is it important?

• What different models exist in this development?

• What is corporate culture and why is it important?

• Why is management talent so critical?

• What are the future trends and issues facing global companies?

• What are business models? How are they specified?

4-5:  Consult with Professor Thoman privately about my final class project, and then head home.

5-6: Walk my dog in Central Park.

6-8: Do some schoolwork while cooking dinner, and eat with my boyfriend.

8:30-10:30: Meet some girlfriends from SIPA to get ready for the SIPASA Spring Fling Party.

11-2: SIPASA Spring Fling Party at Cabana at Maritime Hotel.  It was a blast.

Here’s a link to the hotel’s website:

Workshop in Development Practice

Kelly Heindel is a SIPA student who recently spent her spring break focusing on her Workshop in Development Practice course. I asked Kelly to talk about the project and to share some pictures. Thanks Kelly!

One of the main reasons I decided to attend SIPA was for the Workshop in Development Practice course taught during the final semester of study.  Labeling the workshop as a course is a bit misleading.  It is more of an experience.  As the student services office explains, “Officially, it is a spring-semester course for second-year master’s degree students in the EPD program, but workshop activities begin in the fall semester through the course on Methods for Development Practice.”

After gaining a firm understanding of the current methods and theories for development, students are placed in consulting teams of 4-6 people and assigned a client.  Clients are typically UN agencies, NGOs, or private firms working on corporate social responsibility projects.  The client chooses an assignment for the team that can include, evaluation of ongoing organizational activities, designing a monitoring and evaluation system for a current project, recommendations for improvement or sustainability of a development initiative, and many more.

My team’s client is the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR).  IIRR uses a participatory development approach or “people-centered method” by working directly with local NGOs to build the capacity of communities to overcome challenges such as poverty and natural disasters.  One of their newest initiatives has been a community managed disaster risk reduction project on Nias Island in Indonesia.  Nias Island was greatly affected by the tsunami and earthquake in 2004 and 2005, and is still trying to rebuild physically but also economically.

Over 80 UN agencies and other NGOs descended upon the island after the disasters, but most have since left.  IIRR is attempting to fill this gap by helping a local NGO, Caritas Keuskupan Sibolga (CKS), build the capacity of local communities to reduce their vulnerability to disasters through environmental management, livelihood generation, and community organizational activities.

Our consulting team is conducting an independent evaluation of this project to determine the effectiveness and relevance of this approach on Nias Island.  The evaluation is a semester long project and includes a total of four weeks of field research where we conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews with the local staff and beneficiaries of the project to inform our evaluation and subsequent recommendations.

At the end of the semester we will present our findings to IIRR’s executive board and also to faculty and students at SIPA.  Being able to take classroom teachings directly out into the field is really a unique experience.  While stressful at times, the workshop has been extremely rewarding and has assisted in shaping my career goals.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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