This summer, three students are joining the Investigative Journalism Foundation through the University of British Columbia’s Data Science for Social Good program. The program partners students with public organizations to work on collaborative data projects with a social benefit.

This year, the IJF is pleased to be one of the 2023 program partners. We’ve welcomed three new members to our team, Will Jettinghoff, Cindy Jin, and Yadong Liu, who will be working on making interactive visualizations using the IJF’s eight databases.

The students sat down with IJF reporter Hannah Carty to talk about their work.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?

Will Jettinghoff: I’m a fifth year PhD student at UBC in the psychology department and I specifically study social and personality psychology, with a focus on people’s personal value systems.

Cindy Jin: I’m in my fourth year of my undergraduate study, and I’m majoring in stats and minoring in data science. I’m most interested in probability and regression models.

Yadong Liu: I’m doing my linguistics PhD in my sixth year. Specifically, I work on speech production and perception. I’m trying to understand how human beings control speech movement. That means understanding speech from the neurophysiological domain.

Yadong in Bergen, Norway. (Courtesy of Yadong Liu)

You’re all working together this summer on interactive data visualizations. What data are you using and what do you hope to accomplish?

YL: We’re currently working on the lobbying data. Lobbying data are extracted from the lobbying registration reports. Our goal is trying to visualize the most important information from the lobbying report. For example, which companies are lobbying towards which target government office agency, on what topic and who the lobbyist is, and who the politician is in the government agency.

WJ: The way I’ve been viewing the project is pretty much just that the Canadian government has all this data that’s technically available. So it’s technically open, which is good, but it’s not really easily searchable.

What appeals to you about data science and what appeals to you about this kind of political data work?

CJ: I started to learn data science because statistics is heavily dependent on data. And we need to find the regular patterns in the data. So instead of having tons of messy information in the dataframe, we need to clean it up and find some useful information.

WJ: I feel like being a data scientist in an organization like the IJF, I can actually contribute to moving the needle on some of the issues that I would otherwise just kind of be complaining about on the sidelines.

What are the challenges with working with this kind of data?

WJ: I feel like one of the main things that we have been struggling with is that there’s just not consistency across the lobbyists in the proper nouns that they use to refer to the same things. So one lobbyist will say, “I’m lobbying for Rogers Telecommunications,” and one lobbyist will say, “I’m lobbying for Rogers Incorporated.” They’re both referring to the same Rogers and we know that as people, but all the fancy machinery we have is not really able to tell that they’re referring to the same thing.

Will on a recent trip to Hawaii. (Courtesy of Will Jettinghoff)

You all got involved in the IJF through UBC’s Data Science for Social Good program. Can you tell me more about that?

WJ: One of the things that the Data Science Institute at UBC does to spread this data science knowledge at UBC is the Data Science for Social Good program. The goal is pretty simple. It's just [to] hook up organizations that have data science problems with teams of students who need some experience.

YL: What motivated me the most is that I saw people from different domains working in the same program. Not everybody is specialized in computer science or mathematics. It’s people from all different backgrounds. That’s the thing I really like, I get to talk to people from other fields, and get the chance to collaborate with different people.

CJ: It's interesting to see how people from different backgrounds can actually come up with so many interesting ideas even though they may not have that much background in statistics and data science. But it’s interesting to see how we can collaborate so well.

What excites you the most about working for the IJF?

CJ: The experience is very different from when I was taking classes and doing projects with my classmates, because in classes you need to apply specific skills and get a good grade. But in this project, we’re actually considering the user experience, [to] try to make our final visualization as intuitive as possible. We want to do it so that it can be actually useful in real life.

YL: It’s actually my first time dealing with a not-so-well cleaned data set and being able to apply my knowledge to really make a contribution to help people better understand politics in Canada. Like, where does the money go? And whether there's any corruption, things like that.

What are some other interesting projects you’ve worked on in the past?

CJ: Most of my projects are intro level stats projects. But the most interesting project to me was a linear programming project. During the COVID pandemic, many international students went back to their home countries to take online courses. Before midterms and finals, some of them may  cram before the exam. That’s a lot of pressure due to different time zones. So what we did is find out a schedule that can maximize a student's energy in order to prevent them from excessive pressure.

WJ: One of my recent projects has been looking at differences between religious and non-religious people in their well being. There’s been a lot of research on this topic in the psychology of religion. And what that work generally finds is that religious people are happier than non-religious people because they report experiencing a great amount of social connection.

What we found is that spiritual, but not religious people, don’t actually experience this happiness dip that atheists and complete non-believers seem to experience even if, like atheists, they are no longer a part of a religious community. This suggests that the spiritual beliefs themselves are improving wellbeing for spiritual but not religious people, even without having a community who shares their beliefs.

YL: There’s a collaborative project that I’ve been working on. We’re trying to decode how human beings control speech postures and speech movement from brain signals.

Cindy at a Christmas light show. (Courtesy of Cindy Jin)

How do you spend your time outside of work?

YL: I don't have much spare time. I have two kids — a one-year-old and a three-year-old. But before I had kids, I liked rock climbing and hiking. I like computer games, and especially simulation games. How to fly an airplane, how to drive a truck, things like that.

WJ: I like video games. I particularly like the new Zelda game Tears of the Kingdom. And Civilization VI. It has a huge cult following. I love that game. It’s like a civilization management game.

CJ: My largest hobby is getting delicious food. Also bubble teas. And I enjoy romantic TV shows.

What’s your favourite romantic TV show recommendation?

CJ: I do have tons of recommendations. I can recommend another TV show that’s not necessarily romantic. It describes the daily life of a bunch of children and their families. It's a Korean TV show called Reply 1988. It’s really good.