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Code for the Common Good

 
 

Alden Golab is not a fan of the cold. When he moved to Chicago five-and-a-half years ago for a job with the global marketing firm Starcom, staying in a place with bone-chilling weather was not part of his long-term plan. Today, the list of reasons to stay far outweighs the discomfort of winter.

At the top of that list is UChicago’s Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP) program. An innovative partnership between Chicago Harris and the Department of Computer Science, the CAPP program pairs rigorous computer science training with Harris’ renowned public policy core curriculum. The first master’s degree program of its kind to give equal weight to both disciplines, CAPP aims to equip policy leaders for a world increasingly informed by big data and data-driven decision-making. 

“What I found compelling about CAPP was that it was taking all of the things that I was interested in and then applying them to things that actually matter, that are really important for people’s everyday lives, in a way that would prepare me for a career of making decisions and helping make things happen,” Golab explains. “This program can’t be found anywhere else. The ways that we’re combining disciplines is non-existent. That’s why I decided to stay here, despite single-digit weather.”

Joining the program’s second incoming class last fall, Golab found that his path from the corporate marketing world to CAPP was unique among his peers. After earning his undergraduate degree in philosophy and political theory from Notre Dame, Golab was surprised when Starcom offered him a position – and happy to find that the philosophical, idealistic side of his personality had a counterpart well suited to the high pressure, tight deadlines, and demanding clients of an agency job.

“I actually enjoyed being a businessperson,” he says. “I enjoyed dealing with people on a day-to-day basis. I enjoyed, to a certain extent, navigating the politics of the office. I was good at it.”

Most of all, Golab fell in love with the technology and techniques that could transform large sets of seemingly cold data into insights that could help predict consumer behavior. 

“Learning new things about who people are, whether it’s through language or survey research or their online data, I thought there was something really cool there,” Golab says. “To be able to take a bunch of data and utilize advanced methodologies to pull something that tells you about those people – it’s like this magic thing.”

After five years, Golab began to chafe against the limits of how those methodologies were being used. “We pour millions of dollars into research to more effectively sell products,” he says. “Grocery stores are really fascinating, but ultimately it’s not really learning something deep about who people are or making their lives better – it’s just to sell more stuff.” 

Golab began researching PhD and master’s programs in the field of human computer interaction (HCI), and eventually found what he was looking for in Chicago.

“When they leave the workforce to attend grad school, top performers like Alden want a clear ROI for their decision.” says Maggie King, CAPP’s program director. “We designed CAPP with the guidance of innovators in the public and private tech sectors to ensure that between coursework, research opportunities, and workshops, CAPP students are spending their time building a set of skills that can be directly applied to the transformative technology work called for at the local and federal level right now.”

Despite their promise, many of today’s public sector technology projects flounder for lack of buy-in from policy leaders, whose grasp of technology sometimes falls short. “CAPP students are in a unique position to bridge that gap,” says King.

Chicago Harris and CAPP have also given Golab the chance to unite his professional and personal passions, and to flex his leadership skills outside the formal curriculum. He recently became president of OUTPolitik, Harris’ LGBTQIA+ group, which officially relaunched on February 3 with a meeting to discuss the group’s vision for 2016.

Golab identifies his own coming-out experience as the beginning of his journey to CAPP. He describes how the negativity directed at him as a gay man threw into sharp focus his own privilege and awakened him to issues of social justice and inequality.

“When I encounter someone who doesn’t have a voice, or who is part of a community that is struggling to receive the kind of respect it deserves, I get really angry,” he says. Over time, that anger matured into political self-awareness, and ultimately grew into a desire to leave the corporate world and apply his skills in a way that would make a positive impact on people with disadvantages.

As a part of the CAPP program, all students gain hands-on experience filling internship or research positions in the field. Golab works as a research assistant for UChicago Booth economist Marianne Bertrand, who directs the University’s Urban Poverty Lab. Exploring the practice of “comprehensive community development,” Golab is helping Bertrand research the efficacy of large development initiatives, like the MacArthur Foundation-funded New Communities Program, which ran in Chicago from 2002 to 2012.

“Working with Alden has been awesome,” says Bertrand. “We have found great synergies between my research interests and the technical skills he has been acquiring in the CAPP program.”

Asked about his plans for the future, Golab laughs and grudgingly admits it may feature many more winters. For now, Chicago’s persistent challenges – including violence, schools, politics, and the police – remain squarely at the top of the list of problems he would like to work on.

“We have so many problems, and it’s hard to see through them all,” he says. “Are there ways that we can start making progress in at least one small area? Can’t I do something with all this education that helps focus on these issues and produce products that people can use?” 

—Josh Fox

This article was originally published on the Harris website on February 9, 2016.