Stanford and Columbia host bicoastal “Datafest”

Feb. 3, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

Approximately 60 members of the Stanford community and 25 Bay Area residents gathered at Wallenberg Hall on Saturday and Sunday to participate in Stanford’s second “Datafest,” which focused on studying the impact of money in politics.

The event, which was sponsored by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, was replicated at Columbia University as a part of the institute’s bicoastal efforts and was hosted at Stanford by the Graduate Program in Journalism.

Participants formed 11 teams to create projects analyzing political and economic data and exploring issues such as whether money can buy an election, how political apathy is related to campaign contributions and the degree to which Silicon Valley contributes to political campaigns. The teams presented their work to a panel of six Stanford-affiliated judges on Sunday afternoon.

“Amazing things can happen in a really short time,” said Bernd Girod, the institute’s director and a competition judge. “All of the teams have done terrific work, and we all are blown away by how much good and interesting and exciting work has been done over this weekend.”

“The idea was to try to create something where we could have this event on both coasts with contributions from the graduate journalism program and other interested parties,” said Ann Grimes, director of the Graduate Program in Journalism. “It is an important event for our collective fields of journalism and technology to push journalism forward.”

Judges at Stanford awarded “Best in Innovation,” “Best in Potential” and “Best in Insight” prizes, giving $1,000 to each winning team. The Stanford and Columbia audiences voted on their top presentation, which was subsequently live streamed to the other school before both audiences voted for the best overall project.

Columbia’s “FMS Symphony” project– which created a searchable database of the federal government’s daily expenditures– received the best overall project award, beating Stanford’s top-voted “Revolving Dollar Washington” group with 63 votes to 20. All 43 participants at Columbia voted for the Columbia project, while Stanford’s audience was equally split between the Columbia and Stanford projects.

The winner of Stanford’s “Best in Innovation” prize was “Disclosures,” with the “Money in the Valley” project receiving the “Best in Insight” award and the “Does Money Win Elections?” project receiving the “Best in Potential” award.

Marc Joffe, a principal consultant at Public Sector Credit Solutions in San Francisco and a member of the “Congressional Financial Disclosures” team, said he first heard of Datafest while reading a blog about financial industry reform. After looking at the list of potential projects on the Datafest website, he reached out to Fergus Pitt, a participant in the Columbia Datafest, to create a bicoastal team examining how congressional investment performance compares to market averages.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet other people who are interested in finance and politics and technology, a nexus that I find particularly attractive,” Joffe said.

Although judges praised the team’s bicoastal collaboration, Joffe said that coordinating with team members at Columbia wasn’t difficult.

“It was just a matter of dividing up the work,” Joffe said. “We took control of the data collection, and they took control of the presentation and the storytelling.”

Joshua Loftus, Weijie Su, Xiaoying Tian and Qingyuan Zhao, who are all pursuing doctoral degrees in statistics at Stanford, won the “Best in Potential” award for their project, which attempted to determine whether or not money could buy an election.

Loftus said that, although the team ran into some unforeseen difficulties, he enjoyed the Datafest experience and would participate again next year.

“It was very interesting,” Loftus reflected. “It’s more inconvenient to actually get the data that you want than we are used to, because we usually are just doing statistical analysis after the data has been compiled. Otherwise, it’s been fun. I think it was a learning experience for all of us.”

In his concluding remarks, Girod spoke about the importance of bringing people together to tell stories, particularly with the use of technology.

“A university is a place where you bring people together,” he said. “I think what we have done this weekend here at Stanford and at Columbia University is one of the noblest things that a university can do, really bring people together and build connections and bridge different areas.”

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