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From crime reports to park use statistics, cities generate huge amounts of data, yet their leaders often don’t know how to interpret it. That norm may be about to change with new educational programs designed to teach public officials data analytics and computer science.

In 2014, the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy and the Department of Computer Science launched a joint master's program with the aim of schooling future government leaders in technology and Big Data. 

“Government has an enormous amount of data. The challenge is to turn that data into information we can use to develop quantitatively and empirically based policies,” Brett Goldstein, former CIO of the city of Chicago and current senior fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy, said in a release. “In order to be successful, we need to prepare people who work in government to leverage technology and computer science, and in particular data science and analytics.”

Time to Enroll in Big Data 101 

Few current politicians are well-versed in Big Data, machine learning or predictive analytics — areas of expertise that are increasingly necessary when making decisions about land development or resource allocation, for example. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for business in London, tells the Economist the city doesn’t know what to do with 60 to 70 percent of the data it collects.

Graduates of The University of Chicago master’s program, called Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP), will be prepared to serve as chief information officers, chief data officers, chief technology officers and chief transparency officers in federal, state and local governments. 

CAPP’s curriculum includes classes in statistics, data analytics, microeconomics and computer science. Students also participate in a periodic workshop series on recent research and innovation in public policy and the use of public data.

The master’s program is the first of its kind and drew inspiration from a course at Carnegie Mellon on the policy applications of machine learning, data mining and artificial intelligence. 

Students and graduates will likely not be coding government websites or become data-mining experts, but they will become conversant in these fields, allowing them to better manage IT projects and make smarter decisions.

Alternate Options for IT Knowledge 

While future government leaders may not all have the ability to enroll in programs like CAPP, they can take advantage of one-off courses to beef up their IT knowledge. Ed-tech company Coursera offers an online class from Ohio State University called “TechniCity: City Networks, Communications and Sensors.” And General Assembly, which holds courses in technology, design and business skills in many large cities, offers part- and full-time classes such as “Big Data Demystified: Hadoop and NoSQL for Terrified Absolute Beginners.”

In 2014, the Obama administration introduced the U.S. Digital Service, an initiative to bring private- and public-sector developers and tech workers into government. This year the White House increased the budget for the program. As cities and their residents generate more data, demand will only increase for policymakers who can use it