Online event co-hosted by CUSP & The GovLab at NYU Tandon.

June 11th, 2020


  • Victoria Alsina, Academic Director, NYU CUSP
  • Stefaan Verhulst, Chief Research & Development Officer, The GovLab


  • Lilian Coral, Director/National Strategy + Technology Innovation, Knight Foundation
  • Laura Kahn, Data Scientist, Accenture Federal Services
  • Ai Yamanaka, Data Analytics Program Manager in the Aviation Department for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
  • Neil Kleiman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Public Service, NYU Wagner & NYU CUSP
  • Amen Ra Mashariki, Global Director of the Data Lab at WRI
  • Francesco Marconi, Chief Data Officer & Founder of Applied XLabs

Read our takeaways from the event here.

Solving Urban Challenges Using Data: Toward a Data Skills Toolkit for Public Employees to Shape the Future

Data science has critical applications across most industries and has changed the corporate world in a pervasive and global way. Data has been used for the analysis of market behavior, mobility patterns, health outcomes, among many other purposes. The same data that enables retailers to influence our purchasing habits can also be used by nonprofit organizations to boost their fundraising efforts. No surprise that the demand for data professionals has increased in all sectors, including the public one.

It is well known that increased government use of data has the potential to deliver services more efficiently and improve the overall quality of life in communities. That’s especially the case within urban settings where the feedback loop between policy intervention and reported impact tends to be more acute and measurable. But the (re)use of data to improve the well-being of the population – better educated children, safer neighborhoods, better long-term care for the disabled and elderly, cleaner air and water- is still a pending challenge. Moreover, evidence-based and data-driven policies are often justly criticized for their tendency to encode bias and perpetuate systemic racism. Efforts to mitigate such risks must be at the forefront of public servants’ minds as they are expanding their use of data to solve public problems.

One of the reasons why data use is not transforming local government the way it did with big business is the lack of qualified individuals with the substantive and technical expertise to perform data scientist functions within the public sector.

Training public employees and others to specifically overcome the data science skill shortage in the public sector is crucial.

But what are the key skills and competencies that data scientists working in the public sector should have to tackle the most critical and complex urban challenges?

While a few programs around the globe have already tried to train this audience, there are still many open questions that need to be considered to align needs with expertise and education.

As we design a new program at NYU that seeks to target public employees, we invite you to jointly reflect on the following set of topics:

  • While data fluency has become a skill of increased importance in government and the public sector, truly taking advantage of the power of big data often requires workers with specialized skills,
    • Which are those technical and non-technical skills and competences in the public sector?
    • Does the particular urban and institutional context matter?
  • What strategies can public officials develop to ensure the risk of discrimination and bias does not increase with the use of data-driven methods? How can we ensure that data is used for social good?
  • Considering to adopt a full data life cycle approach and the particular set of skills associated with them (problem definition, question formulation, data audit and collection, data analysis, data interpretation, data visualization and recommendations for action), does it make sense to structure training programs along the data life cycle?
  • In addition to the technical data expertise, which are the other key governance and business skills and competences needed?
  • Which should be the target audience participating in these training programs?
  • Which new needs will arise in the near future that need to be considered in current training programs?
  • How to nurture bi-lingualism – where data skills are matched with a particular domain expertise.

Data scientists are in demand, and candidates with the right mix of skills will be rewarded with a future-proofed career.

Let’s determine together the data skills toolkit for public employees to shape the future!


Lilian Coral Headshot

Lilian Coral joined Knight Foundation in September 2017. Coral is Knight Foundation’s director of national strategy + technology innovation, where she manages the national portfolio and focuses on the development of the foundation’s citizen-centered Smart Cities strategy. The portfolio’s investments include a focus on data accessibility and trust, urban mobility, and technology in public spaces. Coral came to Knight from the City of Los Angeles, where she served as chief data officer for Mayor Eric Garcetti. In this role, she led the mayor’s directive on open data beyond the lens of transparency and towards his vision of a data-driven Los Angeles. She managed the growth of Los Angeles’ open data program to 1,100 public datasets, the expansion of the use of data science and analytics, and the development of more than 15 user-centered digital services. Of note, was her development of the GeoHub, a first-of-its kind data management solution for integrating geospatial information across the City of Los Angeles’ 41 departments.

Prior to joining Mayor Garcetti, Coral spent 15 years working on a wide range of policy and technology issues and has experience working with labor unions, NGOs, foundations and local, state and federal government to transform the way government uses data and technology to serve its citizens.

Coral has a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of California, Irvine and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a native of Colombia, a place from where much of her inspiration for innovation and social justice emerged.

Laura Kahn

Laura Kahn is a veteran of using information management and ethical artificial intelligence to drive change for US federal agencies. Laura is the author and co-author of academic papers and research focusing on developing community resiliency in an emergency context, applying data science to improve food supply chain security and ethical frameworks to improve trust in AI. She works in the Fjord DC Digital Studio at Accenture Federal Services, is a mom, musician, and foodie.

Prior to joining Accenture Federal Services, Laura served 14 years in a number of Data Dissemination and Intellectual Property roles at the US Patent and Trademark Office. She holds a B.S. in Textile Engineering, a B.A. in Spanish from NC State University and a MS in Data Science from Indiana University.

Ai Yamanaka is the Data Analytics Program Manager in the Aviation Department for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In her role, Ai is responsible for managing a department-wide data warehouse and analytics team facilitating the use of data as a key driver in strategic and operational decision-making. Ai works collaboratively with business subject matter experts, senior level executives, and agency IT stakeholders to develop use-case based data management strategies for advancing policy-based decision making within the Aviation Department. She leads a small team of data scientists, database architects, ETL, and report developers to build and maintain the department’s cloud-based information management system and oversees the creation of dashboards and visualizations for uncovering business insights across various department units.

Ai entered the Port Authority as a Leadership Fellow in 2016 and rotated through JFK Airport and the Planning and Regional Development Department. She began in the Aviation Department as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Central Office Strategy Unit, where she worked on leading the Aviation Department’s performance metrics program, helping to implement efficient streamlined processes, and introducing new business intelligence visualization tools to analyze data. She is also the founder of the agency’s Data Analytics Working Group (DAWGs), helping to promote and facilitate interagency best practices in data governance and analytics.

Ai holds a Master of City and Regional Planning degree with a concentration in Transportation and Land Use from the Bloustein School at Rutgers University. Previously, she worked as a transportation planning fellow with the Louis Berger Group. Before returning to graduate school, Ai worked as a team leader in an international real estate firm in Japan. As a Posse Scholar, Ai received her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and East Asian Studies from Colby College.

Headshot of Neil Kleiman

Neil Kleiman has spent 20 years building a career at the intersection of policy, philanthropy, government and academia. He founded an urban issues think tank, established new university degree programs, and developed innovative and practical policy solutions for dozens of cities across the United States. He has also written and edited over thirty policy reports, with his work featured in many media outlets, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio.

Kleiman has a joint appointment at the Wagner School of Public Service and the Center for Urban Science + Progress. He is a Senior Fellow at The GovLab and an Affiliated Scholar at the Marron Institute of Urban Management. He teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses on policy formation, urban innovation, and new approaches to managing technology and big data. In 2017, he published a book with Stephen Goldsmith on urban governance reform entitled A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance on Brookings Institution press.

Kleiman serves as the MS Program Director at CUSP. And, as Director of the NYU Wagner Innovation Labs, he supports the development of initiatives and programs to address pressing urban challenges, both nationally and globally. His work has been generously supported at New York University by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Citibank, Ford, Annie E. Casey, Robert Wood Johnson, MacArthur, Kauffman and Sloan Foundations.

He is also Director of Policy and Evaluation for the National Resource Network. Funded with $10 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Network is the nation’s first one-stop resource for cities seeking customized solutions to address pressing local challenges.

Before joining NYU, Kleiman was Director of Policy at Living Cities, a collaborative of the world’s largest foundations and corporate philanthropies, where he was responsible for developing and advancing the organization’s policy agenda. In 2008, in partnership with the Kennedy School at Harvard University, he helped create the Project on Municipal Innovation, the only forum in the U.S. where mayoral advisors meet to learn about and design new policy ideas.

He began his career as the founding director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based policy think tank whose work is consistently cited in local media outlets. The group has been the source of numerous ideas for mayoral and gubernatorial administrations that were then fully implemented in New York City and New York State.

Kleiman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In addition to teaching at NYU, he has also taught urban policy at Barnard College, John Jay College-CUNY, Tulane, Universidad de los Andes (Bogota) and has been a visiting fellow at Williams College.

Kleiman is on the board of Next City and Civic Consulting USA.

headshot of amen ra mashariki

Amen Ra Mashariki is the Global Director of the Data Lab at WRI. There he works across programs, international offices and centers to identify data solutions to turn big ideas into action to sustain our natural resources—the foundation of economic opportunity and human well-being. Amen Ra is also a Data + Digital fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation where he partners with academic, public and private sector thought leaders to shape best practices and strategies on how to use data to maximize impact in our communities.

Previously, Dr. Mashariki was the Head of Machine Learning at Urbint and served as adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). Amen also served as a Fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

Prior to joining Urbint, Dr. Mashariki was the Head of Urban Analytics at Esri, the world’s leading Geospatial Analytics company. At Esri, Amen led a team that implemented on-the-ground solutions for Esri clients around the world that solved complex urban challenges using geospatial analytics cloud technology and machine learning. Previously Dr. Mashariki was Chief Analytics Officer for the City of New York and the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. He ran the civic intelligence center that allowed one of the largest cities in the world to aggregate and analyze data from across agencies.

In 2012, Dr. Mashariki was one of eleven individuals appointed by the President of the United States to the 2012-2013 class of White House Fellows. Immediately after the Fellowship he was appointed the Chief Technology Officer for the Office of Personnel Management. Amen earned a Doctorate in Engineering from Morgan State University, as well as a Master and Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Howard and Lincoln University respectively.

Headshot of Francesco Marconi

Francesco Marconi is the co-founder of Applied XLabs, a Newlab venture studio company, building AI tools for the information industry.

He was previously R&D Chief at The Wall Street Journal leading a team of machine learning engineers, data scientists, and editors. Prior to WSJ he managed strategy at the Associated Press where he co-led content automation and artificial intelligence efforts. 

Francesco was recognized by MediaShift as one of the top 20 digital media innovators, named to the 25 under 35 next generation of publishing leaders by Editor & Publisher Magazine, and nominated as a Digiday Future Leader Awards finalist. He is an affiliate researcher at MIT Media Lab and a Tow Fellow at Columbia University. His ideas have  been featured in The New York Times, Politico, Forbes, Quartz, AdWeek, Digiday, World Economic Forum, Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard Digital Initiative, Nieman Lab.

Francesco’s book “Newsmakers: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Journalism” will be published by Columbia University Press in September 2019.

About CUSP

New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) is an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the service of urban communities across the globe. Using New York City as our laboratory and classroom, we strive to develop novel data- and technology-driven solutions for complex urban problems. CUSP’s research and educational initiatives seek to improve city services; optimize decision-making by local governments; create smart urban infrastructures; address challenging urban issues such as crime, environmental pollution and public health issues; and inspire urban citizens to improve their quality of life. CUSP offers a Master of Science in Applied Urban Science and Informatics, empowering our students with the knowledge and technical expertise to make cities around the world more productive, livable, equitable, and resilient.

About The GovLab

The GovLab’s mission is to improve people’s lives by changing the way we govern. Our goal is to strengthen the ability of institutions – including but not limited to governments – and people to work more openly, collaboratively, effectively and legitimately to make better decisions and solve public problems. We believe that increased availability and use of data, new ways to leverage the capacity, intelligence, and expertise of people in the problem-solving process, combined with new advances in technology and science can transform governance. We approach each challenge and opportunity in an interdisciplinary, collaborative way, irrespective of the problem, sector, geography and level of government.