Student Project Explores California Ballot Initiatives
UC Davis students used data science and visualization to shed light on this year’s ballot initiatives through the California Election 2020 Data Challenge. It culminated in a webinar in October, when the winning teams presented their projects.
Leveraging the expertise of its co-sponsors — the UC Davis DataLab, a campus hub for research support and training in applied data science and informatics based at the UC Davis Library, and the policy-oriented nonprofit Scholars Strategy Network — the challenge both engaged students in the civic process and gave them an opportunity to develop data literacy skills that are in-demand for workers in many fields today.
“Because so much of what we do is about teaching students to use data science and digital technology, the DataLab was well positioned to pivot to the virtual environment when COVID hit,” said Carl Stahmer, executive director of the DataLab. “The California Election 2020 Data Challenge is a great example of how the pandemic has pushed us to innovate further and faster in developing new ways for students, researchers and data scientists to collaborate and learn online.”
During the monthlong challenge, participants received mentoring over Zoom and Slack from UC Davis data science, research and policy experts who helped them shape relevant research questions and analyze publicly available datasets using data visualization.
Teams were matched during a virtual kickoff event in mid-September, and then worked together remotely on their projects. With cash prizes as an added incentive, the competition engaged more than 100 participants, largely graduate and undergraduate students, and 20 teams successfully completed projects.
In addition to gaining hands-on experience with data science and visualization, the participants answered questions directly relevant to the issues on this year’s ballot.
Eight ballot propositions in total were explored by teams in the competition. For example, teams sought to answer questions like could restoring voting rights for parolees (Proposition 17) potentially affect the outcome of local elections? How does Proposition 20 fit in context of the historical relationship between California legislation and overcrowding in prisons?
“While I know this wasn’t an explicit goal of the challenge, the data presented by the teams even helped me decide how to vote on one of the propositions,” said Vessela Ensberg, the library’s associate director of data architecture and one of the challenge mentors.
The virtual event also featured remarks by Jesse Salinas, Yolo County’s chief election officer, who addressed the importance of new technology and data-driven strategies in running elections; Mindy Romero ’01, M.A. ’05, Ph.D. ’15, founder and director of the Sacramento-based Center for Inclusive Democracy, part of the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, discussed the power of the youth vote.