CAM00027Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, in conjunction with the Boston Globe Labs as well as the Boston Area Research Initiative, has launched a new model for cross-disciplinary data collaboration. The inaugural Boston Skill Swap brought together over 40 local graduate students and professionals to work as teams on six Boston-related datasets provided by “Data Guardians.” The Data Guardians represent diverse organizations with distinct types of data including metadata records from the Digital Public Library of America, public data from, campaign contributions from the FEC, tax assessments from the City of Boston, and news-related data from the Boston Globe and MediaCloud. This collaboration is a test of a new hybrid approach that combines the technical focus and quick turnaround of “hackathons” with the substantive issues and mentorship of academic research.

The event began with a kick-off “Skill-A-Thon” on October 17 at Northeastern featuring 11 speakers from academic, industry, and non-profit research organizations including Northeastern, MIT Media Lab, Harvard, IBM Research, Bocoup, Sunlight Foundation, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the Boston Celtics. The speakers talked to an audience of more than 70 people about cutting-edge methods for data analysis, visualization, and interpretation such as network analysis and visualization, mapping geographic data, understanding data privacy, using natural language processing techniques like topic models and sentiment analysis, as well as how to communicate uncertainty and results to lay audiences.

CAM00022On October 18, the Boston Globe hosted the launch of the Data Swap collaboration by bringing together the 40 invited participants, six Data Guardians, and other mentors to pose questions and begin to brainstorm ideas. Teams were assembled to ensure a mix of skills and expertise across development, design, and analysis and include faculty or research mentors in addition to the guidance of the Data Guardians. In addition, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure both made five-figure educational grants of cloud computing resources for teams to collect, store, and collaboratively analyze these big data. The teams have committed to meeting on a bi-weekly basis, making regular blog posts to the Data Swap website about their progress, and presenting a product, analysis, or paper in April.

Catherine D’Ignazio (MIT Media Lab)
Cody Dunne (IBM Research)
Adam Hyland (Bocoup)
Thom Neale (Sunlight Foundation)
Katherine Ognyanova (Northeastern)
Alice Oh (KAIST/Harvard)
Oren Tsur (Northeastern)