This year I had time to think and identify priorities. I demolished books on American politics, leadership, and history, and dabbled (mostly unsuccessfully) in a few ‘classics’. I spent a lot of time reading about the US military’s constant appetite for new data, methods, and applications, thinking about how it facilitated exploration – the Internet is the classic example – and how it will continue to drive innovation in technology, international relations, and defense. I read and enjoyed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. I consumed TED talks, French International Radio, Al Jazeera documentaries, and The Wire (for the second time).
I had the chance to explore a fundamentally different sort of math from which I would have been exposed to in the US. I internalized Limerick’s intense focus on using systems of equations to model complex scenarios. This paradigm lends itself to studying population growth, glacier expansion, or fuse melt and is central to most modeling of physical systems. While I’m writing a dissertation this summer that is a bit more American-math in nature, I got exactly what I needed from this year. I now have a background in ‘physically grounded’ mathematics, which often underpins, for example, environmental policy decision-making.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, this year also made me more interested in America and American challenges. I attribute that interest a bit to missing the US, and also to the surprising parallels I’ve observed between Dakar, Limerick, and the Mid-Atlantic over the past two years. A previous blog of mine touched on some of the lighter cultural similarities between Limerick and New Jersey, but, for example, tutoring and helping write math problems for a Khan Academy related competition this year, really showed me both Limerick and New Jersey share serious common challenges in education. Similarly, for example, helping get started an organization in Dakar that addressed widespread youth unemployment in Senegal let me think comparatively about youth unemployment in New Brunswick or Baltimore. Now, with increasing regularity, I am reading the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the Baltimore Sun, and – as of April – the Boston Globe alongside AllAfrica.com and The Irish Times.
I think, in part the beginning of my pivot back to the United States began in December. I read an article in Rolling Stone about Camden, NJ, a city about an hour South on the Turnpike from where I live. (That’s I-95, and not to be confused with the Parkway, for any non-Jersey readers.) A memorable, problematic line from the article – and there were a lot – was about New Jersey police raiding a public housing tower to serve warrants by rappelling onto the roof by helicopter for fear of “ground-level resistance.” The article though quasi-optimistically concluded, putting stock in an energetic, young police chief who leans on a combination of data and community policing to maintain order. Just a few months before the Rolling Stone article was published, a Camden physician won a MacArthur Foundation award for work on medical hot-spotting in Camden. MIT’s JPAL is now involved with a randomized control trial to evaluate it. Much of the story of Camden – struggling schools, policing, public health, manufacturing – is frustrating, but also not bleak. Being careful not to over extrapolate these two Camden anecdotes, a lot of the productive solutions to big challenges are starting to come out of hybrid social-technical approaches to evaluating challenges and devising solutions. With a unique perspective molded by a year of field research then a year of academic training abroad, I’m really looking forward to being back in the US to participate in this data-driven policy revolution.