Databases for Grassroot Organizations: Bridging the Public Interest through Theory and Practice with Patricia Garcia Iruegas

MIT can pursue public interest technology when we encourage interdepartmental initiatives that prioritize justice and equity and the continuous evaluation of the societal impact of technological advancements.

Databases for Grassroot Organizations: Bridging the Public Interest through Theory and Practice with Patricia Garcia Iruegas

Question 1: What technologies are you working with, or have you worked with?

Currently, my work is based on projects that aim to improve the interface between tech and community organizations. As a research assistant for The Data + Feminism Lab, I find ways to improve the current software tools we develop that are used by grassroots organizations to track femicide cases in Latin America. In a sense, my work engages directly with organizations to understand how they work and to identify points of improvement for the tools that we currently have with them. The tools the lab utilizes were developed by Catherine D’Ignazio and the Data + Feminism team. Using these tools, my work concentrates on surveying partner organizations to see how they use the tools we’ve developed and examine how they can be improved. The first tool I work with is a mailing alert system, similar to google alerts, tailored to the specific needs of organizations that track femicide cases or homicide cases within the LGBTQ+ community across Latin America. The mailing alert system is complemented by an automatic highlighter application to simultaneously reduce the emotional distress of parsing through extensive print and digital media articles containing frequent narratives of violence and compile information such as names and place specific details into a database that organizations can use to assemble their advocacy tools. My work within this project bridges the qualitative details shared by organizations into changes or improvements that can be better reflected in our tools as organizations use them.  

Within my studies, I combine implementation and academic pursuits because I feel there is a gap between academia and real-life implementation. For me, this approach allows me to understand both sides and maybe find ways to reconcile the differences into an academic practice of my own.

Question 2: How do you take account of MIT’s obligation to pursue the public interest in the work that you do? 

My understanding and pursuit of public interest at MIT is largely framed by the work I conducted prior to becoming a student. Before MIT, I completed a certificate in data analysis, namely in R and Python, and worked at the same time with the Mexico City police on violence reduction strategies. One day, I went to the office, and I was working with various databases in their system. After a period of time, I realized only one person out of a ten-person team knew how to use Excel and feed data into the database. This caused stress across the team and represented an extensive amount of work for that one person. In this situation, I realized that while I was learning R and Python, in reality,  the tools the team needed were straightforward. More people in the team could be taught to maintain their databases in a very simple way through Excel and Google Spreadsheets. After that, I organized Excel sessions, and I sat down with the team to teach them how to do regular maintenance work on their databases. Nearly two years after, I received a message from a coworker sharing that they still use my methods to teach new team members and now the whole team knows how to use Excel. Through this experience, I saw the value in combining data analysis and policy implementation with pragmatic approaches, meeting teams where they are before introducing any additional technologies. Now, at MIT, I believe the institute has the tools to lead public interest technology work. This requires understanding how we as students, researchers, professors can build meaningful relationships with public organizations to define what kind of resources are needed and what MIT can bring to the table to meet these needs. In the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, we have practicum courses that help to build experiential knowledge with community partnership-based work centered in the classroom. For students, it is important for us to consider what we will encounter in the world outside MIT, and to engage the messy, often imperfect aspects of our work after we graduate. 

Question 3: What more could you and others do to help MIT team meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology?

For students in the master’s in city planning (MCP), we could create more networks starting in the first year of the program to share what we are doing with ourselves and the broader department. Many people are conducting amazing work, but we don't have those spaces to really engage and learn from one another. More broadly, engagement across MIT around public interest technology to lessen departmental divisions and encourage greater sharing between departments, including computer science or civil and environmental engineering. The idea would be to create greater opportunities to invite and inspire public interest work across campus communities to know more about what students, professors, and researchers are studying, notably because there are so many intersections between different disciplines. In doing so, these conversations could continue to bridge the importance of considering the public in our work as students and researchers. 

Patricia Garcia Iruegas is an MCP 2024 Candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.