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Discovery & Impact, Student Experience, University News

McCourt Students Use Data to Improve Housing Inspections in DC

January 13, 2020

The city’s housing inspection process will be improved, thanks to a group of McCourt School of Public Policy students who designed new algorithms for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

DCRA randomly selects housing units for inspection from a list of units not inspected in the past four years. DCRA Director Ernest Chapprah identified some updates needed to that process, and he asked McCourt students to help design a solution the agency could use to proactively select units for inspection.

Students in professor NaLette Brodnax’s data science advanced modeling techniques class, part of the McCourt Data Science for Public Policy program (MS-DSPP), researched existing DCRA data and developed a way to better identify safety violations and help save lives.

Hands-on Learning

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity for such hands-on learning, and am interested to see how DCRA chooses to use our results in improving the inspection process,” said Madeline Pickens (G’20), one of the students that presented findings to DCRA.

The McCourt School program is specifically designed to use data science to solve real-world problems.

Beginning early last year, Brodnax and Georgetown University’s Office of Community Engagement coordinated with DCRA to develop experiential learning opportunities for students.

“Collaborating with DCRA allowed our class to experience all aspects of the data analysis process, including connecting with stakeholders, building and evaluating models, and considering implementation and ethical issues surrounding our results,” Pickens explains.

In addition to providing students hands-on experience in the data science consulting field, the goal is to help make a positive impact in the DC community, in keeping with the university’s Jesuit tradition of “people for others.”

Applying Probabilities and Maximizing Safety

As an agency that oversees housing code compliance, among other regulatory enforcement, DCRA plays an important role in protecting the health and safety of DC residents.

The students began their quest by meeting with DCRA’s Office of Innovation and its deputy chief building officer to gain a better understanding of the available data and set realistic goals to help optimize the process and maximize resident safety.

Using DCRA’s existing data, the students identified trends and used them to build risk profiles, taking into consideration the history of prior violations, history of complaints based on keywords, renovation dates, license status, ownership type, and more.

The students concluded that DCRA could keep the process random while effectively identifying housing units in need of inspection by applying weighted probabilities to the housing units selection process.

“The impact that we are having is really enabling [DCRA] to leverage the information they have to be better at maintaining safe housing for District residents,” Brodnax explains. “This has an impact on potentially thousands of DC residents, many of whom are part of vulnerable populations.”

Ongoing Projects

At the end of the fall semester, several students presented their findings to DCRA. Director Chapprah and his team are hoping to use the McCourt School students’ work to further optimize their system moving forward.

Over the next few months, Brodnax will help DCRA implement the new algorithms designed by the students into the existing DCRA data software and infrastructure. The partnership with McCourt and the DCRA is ongoing and past student projects include identifying data to better predict vacancies and house flippings, improve the permit process, and more.

“Georgetown’s commitment to the common good starts right here in our hometown and we are thrilled to partner with DCRA on this project,” said Chris Murphy, Georgetown’s vice president for government relations and community engagement. “It’s a true win-win when we can deploy our faculty and students to help DC government optimize services that will better protect DC residents. Renters in DC will be safer as a result of this project and we are proud to have played a part in it.”