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It’s raining data: A2 Data Dive returns to UMSI with a fitting theme

A UMSI student holds a shovel and smiles while working in a rain garden

Tuesday, 04/02/2024

Rain gardens are the shallow-dug, unsung heroes of Washtenaw County yards. Typically situated downhill from a rain gutter or driveway, they capture stormwater runoff — which contains everything from environmental pollutants to dog poop — and filter it through the soil, keeping it from reaching the Huron River. 

They’re beautiful, too. Planted at least 10 feet away from a home’s foundation and filled with native plants, they flower and attract pollinators. 

This month, students at the University of Michigan School of Information dug into data on rain gardens during A2 (Ann Arbor) Data Dive. The one-day data hackathon challenges students to find solutions for local nonprofit and civic organizations. Founded in 2011, it returned this year after a one-year hiatus, thanks to a strong interest among students. 

“A2 Data Dive offers opportunities to strengthen your data analysis skills and build community within Ann Arbor,” says Maggie Brodbeck, data science programs manager at UMSI. The fitting theme for this year’s dive was water conservation and access, in alignment with UMSI’s theme year

On Friday, March 15, more than 25 data divers split into two teams: One team analyzed wastewater data from researchers at the School of Public Health, while the other worked with data on Washtenaw County’s Master Rain Gardener program. 

“I'm not a data science student,” says Justin Villa, a Master of Science in Information student on the library science and archives track. “But I look at data transformation and visualization as a fascinating hobby I enjoy. This seemed like a great opportunity to put what I've managed to pick up to the test while meeting interesting people and helping out local organizations.” 

Growing an idea 

Community partner Susan Bryan’s email signature features a graphic with the text “Master Rain Gardener” and an illustration of a sunflower. “We get people to build rain gardens,” she says by way of introduction. 

A rock-lined garden with native plants and a green sign identifying it as a "Rain Garden"
Photo courtesy of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's Office

As rain garden coordinator for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office, Bryan runs the Master Rain Gardener Class, which trains community ambassadors to build their own rain gardens and help their neighbors do the same. Bryan and fellow WCWRC staff also offer design visits, providing “on-the-ground analysis” — literally — to residents who are interested in installing a rain garden on their property. 

In the past year alone, residents of Washtenaw County built 91 rain gardens, and 411 people earned their Master Rain Gardener certification. 

I would like to see what story the data tells us about the journey of a rain gardener. What are the interventions that make the most difference?

“The program is so successful, our ability to track that success has become inadequate,” Bryan explains. “I would like to see what story the data tells us about the journey of a rain gardener. What are the interventions that make the most difference? How long does it take for them to build their rain garden? Why don't they? Or why do they?”

In the weeks leading up to A2 Data Dive, Bryan met with two student leaders: project coordinator Charlotte Parent, a Bachelor of Science in Information student on the information analysis track, and data coordinator Valeria Fraga, a Master of Health Informatics student. They worked with Bryan to identify her goals and clean up her data. 

“I really wanted to get my hands on some data outside of the classroom setting,” Fraga says. “I've done research in the past with datasets that have already been precleaned, but I've never just been given a dataset in its raw form.”

Like an eager gardener elbows-deep in mulch, she was up for the challenge. For Fraga and many others, A2 Data Dive is a unique opportunity. “There are a lot of hackathons related to backend computer science stuff,” she says. “But there are not many events like this that are purely geared toward the analytics.” 

“I think that aspect really appealed to me,” Parent agrees. “Along with the community part — being able to see my actions do some good.” 

Back in 2011, this was the seed that led an enthusiastic group of UMSI students to found A2 Data Dive. 

A photo of advisory board member Nikki Roda pointing to "UMSI" on a scrabble board display adhered to a wall
Nikki Roda (MSI '13) attends a meeting of the UMSI Advisory Board. (Photo: Jeff Smith)

Nikki Roda (MSI ’13) recalls reading a blog post in 2011 by Jake Porway, a data scientist at the New York Times, asking why there wasn’t a platform akin to Doctors Without Borders for data science professionals to lend their skills to nonprofit and civic organizations.

Roda was inspired. She reached out to Porway directly and received his blessing to bring the idea to Michigan, where she was an incoming student at the School of Information. 

“It takes a village to grow an idea — any idea,” she says. With support from the UMSI community, Roda, Claire Barco (MSI ’13) and Emily Petty Puckett (MSI ’10) launched the first A2 Data Dive. 

Now a member of the UMSI Advisory Board, Roda led a workshop this year for the next generation of student coordinators. “It feels only right to pay forward, and with immense gratitude, all of the support and help I received,” she says. 

“To me, the very fact that UMSI students are building bridges to the community by offering their skills to local nonprofits means this event, regardless of the ‘outcomes,’ is already a success.” 

Diving in 

On the day of A2 Data Dive, before students pulled up their spreadsheets and popped open cans of seltzer, Bryan thanked them. “Whatever you find out, I’m going to implement,” she said. “It will make a difference.” 

The team got to work searching for patterns in a sea of spreadsheet rows. They had access to data points including each contact’s zip code, the year they took the Master Rain Gardener Class, their self-identified level of skill as a gardener, whether they built a rain garden or not, and the year their garden was built. 

A2 Data Dive 2024

A student wearing a backpack walks toward a sign that reads "University of Michigan welcomes Ann Arbor Data Dive"
MADS student Kolbe Sussman participated in A2 Data Dive to connect with peers and the Ann Arbor community. (Photo: Abigail McFee)
A group photo of Kolbe Sussman, Neha Nair, Gretchen Lam, Justin Villa, Susan Bryan, Charlotte Parent and Valeria Fraga
The rain garden team poses with community partner Susan Bryan. From left: Kolbe Sussman, Neha Nair, Gretchen Lam, Justin Villa, Susan Bryan, Charlotte Parent and Valeria Fraga. (Photo: Abigail McFee)
Data coordinator Valeria Fraga introduces the team to the Master Rain Gardener dataset. (Photo: Abigail McFee)
Data coordinator Valeria Fraga introduces the team to the Master Rain Gardener dataset. (Photo: Abigail McFee)
A photo of stickers that read "Ann Arbor Data Dive" alongside stickers with the UMSI theme year logo, which read "Water Conservation and Access"
The fitting theme for this year’s dive was water conservation and access, in alignment with UMSI’s theme year. (Photo: Abigail McFee)

“We looked at many different attributes of people who got involved in the program to see differences between who ended up building a rain garden and who didn't,” Villa says. 

A few hours and pizza slices later, they had identified key findings to present to Bryan. 

Villa discovered that the most common motivation for those who signed up for the Master Rain Gardener Class was “gaining knowledge.” But among those who followed through and built a garden, the most common motivation was “fixing a problem.” 

A resident who is trying to keep their basement from flooding might feel more urgency to follow through than a hobbyist. “It makes sense,” Villa says. “But it was interesting to see it backed up by numbers.” 

Kolbe Sussman, a neuroscientist and student in UMSI’s fully online Master of Applied Data Science program, participated in A2 Data Dive out of a desire to work together with her peers to help members of the Ann Arbor community. 

Through her data analysis, she found that those who took the Master Rain Gardener Class in person were far more likely to build a rain garden compared to those who took the course online. She also noted that most rain gardens get built the same year a resident takes the Master Rain Gardener Class. 

“I felt our team was able to provide some quality insights for our community partner and I was so happy to get the opportunity to make that difference,” Sussman says. 

For Parent, this final presentation was the culmination not only of a long afternoon, but of weeks of collaboration. One image stands out to her in particular. 

“I just remember seeing how excited and impressed Susan was,” she says. “It drove home, for the participants, that the work they did makes a community impact. What they're doing means something, and that is such a big, important part of data analysis to me.”

— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer


View a map of rain gardens in southeast Michigan.

Interested in building a rain garden? Start here