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Jeanne Holm: A data 'revolutionary' on building a better world

Jeanne Holm: A data 'revolutionary' on building a better world

Jeanne Holm has constantly evolved her career, but always around working with data and using it for the greater good.

There are amazing opportunities for empowering more people to understand how to use data for the things that they care about

Jeanne Holm was running the publications department at NASA, “this thing called the internet came.”

It was around 1991 and her team were sharing files, but with clunky technologies.

“When web pages came out, I said, ‘oh my god, this is the future’.”

“We were printing books and technical papers and I could see the shift happening towards the internet,” she says.  

She led the project setting up the first web pages at NASA.

Looking back now, she says, it was about change management.

“I took a group of people who were typists, hot lead typesetters, writers and editors, and transformed them into a digital literate and tech savvy team.”

She learned a lot working on those projects, but she wanted to go back to school to “fill the gaps” on her expanding work in information technology.

Holm, who has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and English, went on to complete a PhD in management of information systems.

She has worked at a range of organisations including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA, Walt Disney Company, The World Bank and the United Nations.  She was involved with Data.Gov, an open government flagship project for the White House under President Obama.

Today, Holm is deputy CIO, assistant general manager and senior technology advisor to the Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.

She says her technology advisory work at the city means she is working “on everything, from autonomous vehicles to robotics and homeless initiatives.”

“I work on social issues, technical issues. Anything where technology or data can better the outcomes.”

One of the projects her team is working on is a child abuse prevention hackathon.

Take the data, transform it into information, make it actionable and provide knowledge for people which then creates changes in the world

As deputy CIO, she oversees a lot of city services like the 111 call centre, the television stations for public education and the help desk.

“I feel like I have always been trying to get information to people. First, on the printed page, then online and then machine to machine as well as machine to humans.”

And then, she says, “being able to take that data, transform it into information, make it actionable and provide knowledge for people which then creates changes in the world.”

Holm talks about working on some of the most innovative ways on how data can help people.

A recurring theme in all her work is this: “You can teach data science and empower other people to do social good.”

When she joined the city government more than two years ago, she says the city was publishing data, but there was not an ecosystem of people who used the data.

She says the city then pulled together 14 local universities so each quarter, each semester, students and professors work in city departments on data science challenges.

She says they work with students and faculty from various departments. These include data science, statistics, public policy, architecture and design school. The latter help in visualisation and user interface aspects of the projects.

One of the projects created from that partnership is LAcomotion, she says. The project's aim was to make the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“We wanted to create a way to automatically count the number of bicycles and pedestrians in the area and dynamically feed that data into our traffic system, so that we can change the timing of lights at intersections," she says

They are aided by cameras in this, but the process can be “tricky”, she says.

The cameras are in black and white with a wide angle (‘like fish’). When somebody is walking against a wall there will be a shadow she says.

“We figure out a way to remove static background pieces and then count the pieces that are moving and know when the person is moving in the video,” she says.

A Toyota foundation funded a project with one of the universities. The goal was to create an algorithm, using certain kind of filtering, to take the extreme shadowing out and be able to be almost 100 per cent accurate with the count of pedestrians and bicyclists. The pilot of the project was launched in LA this month.

She says another project they are working on is the problem of homeless people.

Around 30,000 people sleep outside or do not have a house. “It is very sad and very hard to get people who are on the streets into housing, get them reunified with their families, and get medical help and help them get a job.

“It is a long process, so we wanted to switch it around,” she says. “What if we can predict who is likely to become homeless?”

She says they looked at the different indicators that could lead to homelessness.

“The idea is to look at the questions we ask when people come to the city for services like workforce training and food stamps.”

They also look at indicators. For instance, if a family member gets sick, they will be spending a lot of money for the treatment. Or, it could be an immigrant with no social networks and therefore will have no place to stay.

“What other services can we give them that will keep them from becoming homeless?

A homeless person seeks shelter near the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A homeless person seeks shelter near the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

What if we can predict who is likely to become homeless? What other services can we give them that will keep them from becoming homeless?

“Because, sometimes it turns out people just need a month or two of help with the rent, or to have their car fixed, or pay for a parking ticket because they need the car to go to work.

“Sometimes, a couple of hundred dollars of effort keeps that person their apartment or house. Those are the kinds of cases we are trying to use predictive analytics to help us understand.”

“That’s the hope … to prevent homelessness.”

Holm is a distinguished instructor at the UCLA, where she has been teaching for two decades on courses in knowledge management, big data, and civic innovation in underserved communities.

Holm founded a startup called Africa Open Data. The group holds conferences three or four times a year in Africa, where they teach students and young people skills to understand what they do with data.

“We get them to use specific data for social good,” she says.

“We give them data sets about health outcomes so they can figure out a grading system for local hospitals,” is how she describes one such project.

“Or we give them data around natural disasters,” she says. This will help them predict where they should not be building houses because people will be in danger.

"We teach citizens to do data gathering, like identifying trash heaps where there is a potential for diseases.

“There are amazing opportunities for empowering more people to understand how to use data for the things that they care about.”

When she was with the World Bank, she worked with the African government to help contain the Ebola outbreak.

There was a time a lot of fear how exactly it is being spread, she says.

"We had to figure out what kind of data we could pull together and how we could best move the scarce medical supply that was becoming scarcer and scarcer, to where we thought the outbreaks may happen next."

She says having this approach around data applies to enterprises.

“It is important for them to think about the data they can share,” she says.

Banks, for example, can use their data on lending practices to do some programmes with financial literacy. 

“We see a lot of people who are defaulting on their loans, it is in their own best interest to want people to be more financially savvy,” she says.

“Empowering anyone to use data, is key for me.”

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