Class of 2022: Colombian Student Champions Justice by Applying Data Science – UVA Today

Even as she wraps up her studies, Naranjo-Velasco is already applying her newfound data science skills to a legal research project in Colombia.

“I am collaborating on a policy project focused on land restitution,” she said. “A 2011 law was enacted in Colombia that provides property restitution for victims who lost land during armed conflict. In order to be awarded this benefit, victims have to file a petition through a government agency. Our research question we ask is: ‘Why, after 10 years, is the number of rejected applications so disproportionately high?’”

The project uses optical character recognition software to extract data from a Colombian government website. The goal is to collect and store the legal document information in a database for researchers who are investigating the question.

Naranjo-Velasco said she appreciates being part of the project because it aligns with her passion for justice, and allows her to apply the tools and methodologies she learned at UVA.

“The project is a lot of hard work on top of my master’s coursework, but that’s why I’m here,” she said. “The M.S. in Data Science program is intense, especially for someone like me coming from a law background, but it is also incredibly rewarding.” 

She said she hopes after graduation to champion knowledge-sharing opportunities between North and South America, particularly to support human rights. “State-of-the-art data analysis tools are being developed in the North which cannot be directly transplanted to contexts where the lack of access to data is a challenge,” Naranjo-Velasco said.

She pointed to social disparities as an example.

“Social disparities are directly related to access of information,” she said. “In Colombia, the conversation around data is about how hard it is to obtain. Compare that to the U.S., where data is much more readily accessible. In my classes, we talk about protecting data privacy, which is an important issue. But when the stumbling block is access to data in the first place, it changes one’s perspective entirely.”

Naranjo-Velasco also finds the program rewarding, she said, for the connections and mentorship she has received. “For me, the key value of the program is working with my classmates. I love learning from them, whether it’s how to take better notes or collaborating more effectively.”

Her capstone project, required to complete her degree, helps illustrate this sentiment.

“My capstone research project focused on network mobility of illicit cultural property,” she said. “The project partnered with the Department of Sociology at UVA, and we were tasked with building an automated data pipeline that collects, processes and stores data for antiquity listings on an online marketplace.”

Her group worked closely with faculty advisers from Data Science and the sociology department throughout the year, and are wrapping up the project this semester.

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