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Student winners of the MyVoice Data Challenge reflect on their experience

Students Gathered around a table filled with sticky notes

Friday, 03/26/2021

Two UMSI student teams earned honors at the MyVoice Data Challenge, an initiative of the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS). 

The 2021 competition was co-sponsored by faculty and research staff from Michigan Medicine. The aim of the challenge was to “create a process using data science methodologies to analyze the data, develop methods for deriving meaning and synthesize findings into a short presentation,” according to the MIDAS website.

Teams were given data from MyVoice (, a national text-message poll of youth aged 14-24, with the goal of informing local and national policies in real-time. The competition was open to graduate and undergraduate students with all levels of data science backgrounds.

Out of 16 teams, MADS students Liu Jason Tan, Nhan Le, Christine Gregg and Michael McManus won first place for their submission, “Natural Language Processing for Qualitative Research: A Human-Centered Approach.” Another MADS group composed of Stuart Ong, Moutaz Gendia and Sheila Pietono received honorable mention. Both groups were among the four finalist teams who presented their entries at the Data for Public Good Symposium on February 25. 

UMSI caught up with the winning team about their experience.

What was one of the biggest takeaways from participating in the challenge?

Nhan: Engage with your stakeholders: our work takes effect by leveraging their ability.

Christine: The MyVoice Data Challenge reinforced how important it is to have an interdisciplinary team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We naturally gravitated to different parts of the project and we accomplished so much more than we could have individually.

My background before starting the MADS program was environmental engineering which is often one or two steps removed from people. I thought the public policy and human-centered aspects of this challenge were really exciting and this helped me reframe what to focus on after graduation.

Michael: I think the biggest take away for me is to keep the end user and other stakeholders in mind and at the heart of the process. By keeping our focus on what would be most beneficial for the researchers, I feel we provided something that may be a value-add for them in their endeavor to help inform policy that ultimately impacts the lives of the youth in the United States.

Secondly, go to each meeting with an agenda and assign action items with due dates to help keep the project on track and respect everyone’s time.

 Jason: My biggest takeaway was that if you put your mind to it anything is possible. All of us had very minimal background in NLP [natural language processing], but we overcame those obstacles and used our strengths to produce a great product. We all come from different backgrounds, having our own strengths and weaknesses. It was very important that our strengths complement each other. We set a goal in mind very early on, and I am still amazed by how far we’ve come and everything that each of us learned.

Do you have advice for students who'll participate in the future?

Nhan: Have no fear trying state-of-the-art tools: be goal-oriented and try whatever techniques to get to the results first, then think about what you’re doing later.

Absorb what your team members have to say as much as possible. Find things to agree with and say yes to as many ideas as reasonably possible.

Michael: As Stephen Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.”  I think having a clear direction of where we wanted to go and setting goals from the beginning helped us stay focused and produce good results. 

Assume positive intent.  As we are all students working remotely, unique challenges can arise.  These could be anything from communication, scheduling, sharing deliverables, and meeting deadlines.  Understanding this and assuming positive intent from the team goes a long way in creating a team environment conducive to collaboration. 

Take time to get to know your team personally, at least a little bit, at the very beginning of any project.  It will help communication and collaboration and pay dividends in the end.

Jason: Teamwork makes the dream work. Everyone has their own strengths, and your team should work together in a way that utilizes your strengths. Listen to your teammates and bounce ideas off each other.

View the presentations of the four finalists, Q&A and judging here.

- Kate Cammell, UMSI News