For as long as I can remember, I grew up asking questions and seeking truth. I was born in Afghanistan but raised here in the West, free to ask questions that were otherwise off limits:
- Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?
- Why can my brothers attend sleepovers but my sister and I can’t?
- Why do my uncles talk finance while my aunts talk flatbread?
That’s right, I was that kid! I wanted answers; I wanted better questions. And as I absorbed more of the world and more of its information, my parents encouraged my curiosity (or maybe they just wanted me to stop with all the questions!). It was through their permission that I found my freedom.
I first saw glimpses of the power of data when I was studying economics at the University of California, Berkeley. As an immigrant young woman, I didn’t have familial insight or insider knowledge of the stock market or global interest rates. These just weren’t the types of conversations I was privy to. Although I didn’t have these advantages, I was fortunate enough to have an academic environment with two Nobel Laureate professors in Economic Sciences, a community of curious people searching for answers, and, perhaps most importantly, access to data. This helped even the playing field.
Early in my career, I quickly earned a reputation as a “data evangelist”. As Executive Director of the Clean & Safe Program for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, I wanted to find our blind spots, to uncover the unknowns in our operations. When I took the helm of that program, we were essentially running a “mini city” — 275 blocks of five neighborhoods — that make up downtown San Diego. Yet we were running those areas with very little automated data or information to help us make decisions.
So, I got to work! I launched a real-time tracking system to gather data that quickly exposed inefficiencies and informed the allocation of resources, improved our routes, and instilled accountability throughout the organization. This new system allowed us to improve our operations and implement new programs based on the actual needs of each community. Thanks to data and analytics, we transformed those neighborhoods into vibrant, urban hubs.
As Director of Performance and Analytics for the city of San Diego, I introduced a data-informed process into the Mayor’s approach to city services — from potholes to homelessness. My team worked with the San Diego Fire Department to review their data around emergency services. Using data science, we provided predictions of future emergencies across an entire year. Emergency response teams would use this information to anticipate the best location for rapid response — saving time, costs, and lives.
We did our work as champions of data — advocating for increased transparency and accountability across the city. We were fueled by the drive to connect our communities directly with city services in the most efficient way possible. And the more we unleashed the power of data to do so, the more I learned from these communities about their concerns. Data can be cold and rigid. It can be misused and misinterpreted. And so it was critical to ensure that we operated with accuracy and integrity. This allowed us to build trust with our constituents, so that we could do the work we believed in. I soon found myself in a role I hadn’t planned — as a conduit between the technical concepts of data science and the people impacted by our work. It was the role I was made for.
In late 2019, I was presented with an opportunity to share my passion for data in a new way. I was invited to join a team of like-minded data science and business luminaries in the establishment of the Data Science Alliance, a startup nonprofit. We are a community of data-curious individuals and organizations that have joined forces to establish San Diego as a leader in the field. We’ll do this by tackling marquee civic problems and wicked business challenges through the lens of data science. We’ll do this by advancing data literacy, and promoting a culture of open access to data. And, we’ll do this by mining through data, searching for answers and asking better questions.
As I write this piece and I reflect on my journey, I can see it so clearly — the thread that weaves its way through the different chapters of my life, connecting it all together. My curiosity. My search for truth. My constant questioning. I hope that through my work as CEO of the Data Science Alliance, I can offer this same opportunity to the young girl back in Afghanistan today, in another part of the world, without the privilege that has so shaped my life. I hope to empower her with access to the very data that will allow her to shed light on the questions she asks herself. I hope the work I do today will change her trajectory and help even her playing field.