A trail-blazing cohort
In the spring of 2019, Peruvian social impact group Aporta launched the Advanced Program in Data Science and Global Skills. The goal: recruit and support talented learners ready for a rigorous data science education.
Through an education partnership with IDSS, these learners take courses in probability, statistics, machine learning, and data analysis offered through the MIT MicroMasters in Statistics and Data Science. Aporta’s program also features co-curricular content on career skills like communication, critical thinking, and ethics, plus opportunities to apply new skills to civic challenges through NGO-sponsored projects.
After collecting and reviewing hundreds of applications, testing to assess technical knowledge, and interviewing many candidates, Aporta selected their first cohort of learners. This group, supported by generous scholarships, took on a challenging opportunity that could impact their individual lives. Together, their progress would also inform both Aporta and IDSS on the success of a new program and a pilot collaboration.
Today, Aporta and IDSS came together (virtually) to celebrate 20 learners of the cohort that started it all as they complete 18 months of intensive learning.
The first MicroMasters course that cohort one tackled was Probability. “It seemed easy at the beginning,” says Alejandro Ramirez, a learner in the group. “Then the difficulty increased, and the next week — it was exponential.”
Fortunately, learners in Aporta’s program receive valuable aid in taking on this challenging material. IDSS matches teaching assistants to each course based on their expertise. TAs provide interactive recitations, create supplementary course materials, and hold review sessions.
“The TAs were really useful,” says Manuel Montoya, a learner who works in data science for a Peruvian bank and saw the program as an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps in statistics concepts. “The recitations were a great opportunity to experience some of what it’s like to take a course at an institution like MIT. It’s a totally different way to interact when you have someone with experience talking to you and answering your questions.”
Learner José Mallma adds that TA assistance went beyond recitations: “A few times, I emailed them and they gave me detailed answers to my questions. That was really valuable.”
Aporta’s learners quickly learned that they had another resource to help them succeed in the program: each other.
“At first I felt overwhelmed because everyone had a lot of experience in their field,” says Susana Ordaya, who hopes to someday make an impact with her analytical skills in the public health sector. “But I came to realize there were some things I learned in my career that they had less experience with. So I could help, and we complement each other. That made me feel more confident about my abilities.”
The cohort formed many friendships, went on social outings, and even attended some political events together during Peru’s tumultuous 2020 presidential election. When the coronavirus pandemic forced them to be remote, they connected online to share knowledge, encouragement, and memes. Ramirez got connected to a job opportunity through a friend in the program.
“Being part of this cohort has been as valuable as the technical knowledge,” says Mallma. “I gained a lot from their experiences.”
Luckily, the group had months to get to know one another before going remote. Together, they could be more resilient in the face of pandemic challenges than they might have been apart. “Even taking the courses from home, you are not alone,” says Ordaya. “You will always have support from other learners and the course team.”
For over a year, as they faced the daily challenges of their personal and professional lives, and despite the interruptions of a pandemic and political unrest, these learners advanced from Probability to Statistics, then Data Analysis, and finally Machine Learning. Along the way, they were challenged to grow as communicators and leaders.
“I’m lucky to work in a position that lets me apply many things I learned in the program on a daily basis,” says Ramirez. “I work on fraud detection projects, which requires the technical skills to detect or model patterns, but also requires a strong ethical sense to not harm innocent people’s records. And you have to present your work and make people care. In this program I learned how to describe a problem, and how to tell a story.”
In addition to advancing data science education, IDSS supports research that leverages data skills to address critical challenges facing societies around the world. Aporta’s program, similarly, contributes to the social and economic development of Peru.
To ensure the program embodies this spirit of social responsibility, the learners are not only provided with concrete examples of how data analysis is used in development and sustainability work — they actually apply their developing skills to projects sponsored by local NGOs.
Montoya, who has done some volunteer work before, typically applies his data science skills to his job in finance and retail. “I’m interested in working with organizations that make peoples’ lives better,” he says. “The project with NGOs opened my eyes to the impact that we can have with analytics, not only on business but also on social development.”
Montoya helped Care Peru, a social justice NGO striving to defeat poverty, build a standardized database for poll data tracking childhood poverty. He’s also helping to build a dashboard so users can access information in a clear and simple way. Ordaya worked with League Against Cancer on a data-driven public health education campaign. Mallma assisted GRADE, a policy research center, in comparing different datasets (demographic, housing, and economic data) to mine for new insights.
On top of the direct experience in social impact work offered by the program, some learners are bringing newfound skills to endeavors already underway. Yesica Camavilca is part of a project that aims to track the harassment of women on public transportation, and another to gather and present information about political candidates to educate voters. Her job these days is to help collect — and eventually analyze — data on rare diseases like hemophilia and fibrosis in Peru.
“There is a more direct feeling that you are helping someone when you are doing these kinds of social projects,” she says.
Cohorts two, three, and beyond
Before this first cohort reached the major milestone of earning the MicroMasters credential and completing the additional trainings offered through the program, it was clear the program had value, and that there was additional interest and talent to recruit. In May of 2020, a second cohort was launched. Then, this past September, a third cohort began the program.
“At first, we didn’t know the impact this would have,” says Montoya. “Now that there are new cohorts, we can see the impact we had. Friends asked me if they should apply, and some are in the new cohorts. The new groups are there because of the success of the first cohort.”
“This first generation of our program has been an amazing journey of learning and discovering how much people can shine if provided the right tools, technical and non-technical, and the incredible talent Peru has in this field,” says Luz Fernandez Gandarias, Managing Director of Aporta and Director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics and Data Science. “The partnership with MIT IDSS has been key, and along the way we also discovered the impact we could have through our work with the NGOs, which is something we will continue to do.”
“Aporta’s first learners served as the pilot not only for their data science program, but for IDSS education partnerships,” says IDSS director and EECS professor Munther Dahleh. “We’re grateful for that, proud of the robust program they have built, and inspired by the incredible group of people who are the first to have completed it.”