On numbers

One of my favorite lectures at SIPA was Paul Thurman’s last lecture for Quantitative Analysis for International & Public Affairs.

Stats is required for every SIPA student, not just those concentrating in economic development or international finance, and a lot of people hate it in the same way that high school students hate math. Thurman was tasked with the very tough job of convincing us that it was relevant to each and every one of our careers. After a semester of practice sets and STATA and normal distributions and t-tests and midterms, Thurman sat us down, flipped on a projector, and pretty much convinced us all.

We had just finished presenting our final projects, which (he teased) had probably been rush jobs—all nighters pulled in the library frantically running multiple regressions. He asked us to walk through another rushed stats project with him to see if we could figure out what had gone wrong. The slides he put up were partially blacked out to protect the confidentiality of the client, but the essence was that a set of tests to identify possible correlations between temperature and the failure of a certain mechanical part were being horrifically misinterpreted.

Turns out the mechanical part was an O-ring—the O-ring that failed on an unusually cold day in January 1986, causing the Challenger to explode.

While the engineers in charge of determining safety—people whose jobs it was to run the numbers and interpret the math—had correctly identified this as a problem, multiple people at other layers of the project—managers at both NASA and Morton Thiokol, the contracting company responsible for building the O-rings—had decided to go ahead with the launch anyway.

Thurman’s point was that statisticians, engineers, and data geeks aren’t the only ones who need to pay attention to the numbers. Most of us would at some point be in a position where we would need to make decisions based on quantitative analysis, and given our collective interest in development, finance, and economics, many of these decisions could have real, serious impact on people’s lives. He then put a photo of his kids up on the screen and charged us with making sure, essentially, that we didn’t fuck things up for them or future generations.

(It sounds almost unforgivably hokey now, but I wasn’t the only one with goosebumps, and some people actually cried.)

Four years later, I’m taking David Malan’s intro to computer science course, CS50. Monday’s class was partially about imprecision in float variables, and Malan showed a video that took me right back to Thurman’s class:

(In case you’re not up for 9 minutes of Modern Marvels: because “one tenth of a second” can’t be represented precisely in binary, the clock on early versions of the Patriot missile lost precision over time. Because of this error, the missile failed to intercept an incoming Iraqi missile during the Gulf War, leading to the deaths of 28 American soldiers. A short explanation is here.)

To sum up: numbers are really important.

SIPA Shushing Students over CableGate: Update

I was out of town this weekend, blissfully disconnected from phone and Internet. I came back to find out that since I blogged about Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs warning students not to discuss Wikileaks online if they ever want to work for the State Department, the story has, well, exploded.

The Huffington Post got in touch with State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley, who said the SIPA alum who e-mailed the Office of Career Services was acting of his own volition:

This is not true. We have instructed State Department employees not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents using an unclassified network since these documents are still classified. We condemn what Mr. Assange is doing, but have given no advice to anyone beyond the State Department to my knowledge….

If an employee of the State Department sent such an email, it does not represent a formal policy position.

So it looks like the blame for OCS’s ridiculous “advice” falls squarely on the shoulders of SIPA, then. Excellent.

SIPA Shushing Students over CableGate. Seriously?

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a link to a blog post about Wikileaks. Not surprising, given the number of Wikileaks-related blog posts that are floating around the Internet in the wake of the organization’s release of a quarter of a million U.S. Embassy cables. But this blog post was different: this blog post referenced the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), from which I graduated six months ago.

The author reposts an e-mail sent from SIPA’s Office of Career Services to all current students. It reads:

From: “Office of Career Services”

Date: November 30, 2010 15:26:53 ESTTo:

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Office of Career Services

I’m currently happily employed at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, but while I was at SIPA I seriously considered a career in the Foreign Service. I applied for (and was offered) a summer internship at the State Department, and I coordinated a conference on Policy Making in the Digital Age, at which the State Department’s Director of the Office of eDiplomacy and a representative of the Office of Innovative Engagement spoke.

I guess I can kiss that possible alternate career path goodbye, given that I tweeted a link yesterday to an article about CableGate. Seriously, State Department? This is all over the news. What’s more, it’s become a focal point for discussions on how digital technology is changing our expectations for government transparency (for those who’ve forgotten: the State Department is big on using tech to promote transparency in other countries. Just not here in the US?).

Seriously, SIPA? As fellow SIPA alum Ben Colmery pointed out in a comment on my Facebook wall, since when does having an opinion about a site leaking documents equate to actually leaking documents oneself? You claim to provide committed students with the necessary skills and perspectives to become responsible leaders. Apparently that means curtailing their academic freedom and teaching them how to bury their heads in the sand.

Crossposted on The Morningside Post

Update, December 6: The State Department is denying that it provided “advice to anyone beyond the State Department” regarding Wikileaks and claiming the information in the OCS email “does not represent a formal policy position.”

just breathe.

I’m nearing the end of grad school and starting to get a bit nervous about finding a job.

I’m nearing the end of grad school and starting to get a bit nervous about finding a job. Google spreadsheets full of companies, NGOs and university research institutes — some hiring, more not — are constantly open in Firefox, Idealist is constantly being refreshed, networks are being tapped. There is an abundance of stress.

I was cleaning out a drawer yesterday and ran across a stack of index cards held together with a yellow binder clip. In the statistics class I help teach at SIPA, I ask my students to write down an interesting fact about themselves on the first day of class. It’s a fun way to get to know people, and sometimes it’s easier for me to remember who’s afraid of emus or whose favorite color is mauve than whose name is Greg or Jamie.

I shuffled through the cards before tossing them in the recycling bin and came across one I had forgotten, less “interesting fact” and more “dark confession”:

I was almost singlehandedly responsible for the near collapse of global capitalism in my former career.

You know? All things considered, my life could be much worse.

From Budapest to Haiti to NY to Chile

After the Global Voices Summit in 2008, I came home and raved to friends and coworkers about Ushahidi, and they looked at me and said, “Usha-what?” Now people are coming up to me in the hallways and asking me if I’ve heard of this new Chile crisis mapping project that’s happening at SIPA.

I'm Attending Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010Eight days ago I found out that I would be attending the 2010 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to meet up with the larger GV community again, and I’ve been browsing through old blog posts from the 2008 summit in Budapest.

I helped put out the liveblog for that summit, including the coverage of a session called When the World Listens, about the power of citizen media. Juliana Rotich, Program Director for Ushahidi, spoke during the session about the organization’s role in documenting the post-election violence in Kenya in late 2007 and early 2008.

At the time, the founders of Ushahidi were deciding what to do now that the Kenyan crisis had ebbed. Juliana said the next step would be to create a downloadable tool that could be used by anyone in the world.

Flash forward to this Saturday, when I worked with the rest of The Morningside Post team to host a conference on Policy Making in the Digital Age at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Patrick Meier, SIPA alum and Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi, came and spoke about “Usha-Haiti,” the instance of Ushahidi developed to respond to the massive earthquake in Haiti in January.

As Patrick writes on the Ushahidi blog, at 7:00am — just a few hours before he spoke at SIPA — he heard that an earthquake of even higher magnitude had just hit Chile. Before leaving for New York, Patrick had already launched the Ushahidi team into action, cloning the earthquake-specific Haiti site and beginning to customize it for Chile.

Ushahidi - Chile

While speaking at SIPA, Patrick described the Ushahidi Situation Room at Tufts, where student volunteers have been working around the clock to map reports from Haiti. By the time Patrick left Columbia’s campus on Saturday afternoon, a group of students who had attended the conference had already created a Facebook group and begun organizing potential volunteers through a Google group.

Yesterday, Patrick announced that SIPA would be taking the lead Ushahidi – Chile. New York now has its very own Ushahidi Situation Room, and I’m headed to campus in a few hours for a training so I can help out.

I’m trying to figure out how to describe this circle of events. “It’s a small world” doesn’t seem to apply, since it is, in fact, a very big world — from Budapest to Port-au-Prince to New York to Santiago covers a lot of area, and I haven’t even mentioned how some of the students heading the SIPA Sit Room are also putting together an instance of Ushahidi for Iraq.

I’m amazed at how much has happened in this field in two years. After the Global Voices Summit in 2008, I came home and raved to friends and coworkers about Ushahidi, and they looked at me and said, “Usha-what?” Now people are coming up to me in the hallways and asking me if I’ve heard of this new Chile crisis mapping project that’s happening at SIPA.

My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones in both Haiti and Chile, and I hope that what the SIPA Sit Room does over the coming days and weeks can help.