Adjust it Finely: a Journey Towards Applied Data Science for Peacebuilding

2nd year MIDP fellow Yared Lemma Hurisa shares his journey in the MIDP program as a Rotary Peace Fellow, and how he was able to bridge data with peacebuilding to design his course of study

While in-person classes and major events are being cancelled due to the pandemic COVID-19, I took time at home to think and write about the incredible journey I had over the past two years as a Rotary Peace Fellow and graduate student in the MIDP program at Duke.

For me, this is a journey from a broader international development career to a more fine-grained field of applied data science for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Prior to Duke, I had worked in large development projects in Ethiopia aimed at improving the lives of the poor, particularly in areas of nutrition and resilience building. In these projects, I was involved in monitoring and evaluation and knowledge management activities that use online technologies and research to improve project performance.

I decided to join the MIDP program because I felt that I needed to adjust my field of study towards peacebuilding and conflict resolution as I noticed the rise of conflict and civil unrest in my country, particularly during the period between 2014 and 2017. During this time, I witnessed that the existing regime preferred to address the questions of the people through violence and force. As a result, many thousand individuals were killed and imprisoned that added fuel to the fire and resulted a regime change in April 2018. Personally, I developed a strong sense that development by itself is not enough to address citizens’ demands unless accompanied by the right policies and institutions.

 Therefore, in fall 2018, I joined the MIDP program through the Rotary Peace Fellowship. I wanted to gain new skills in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. I chose the program as a way to fill the missing piece in development. During my time, I have been able to narrow down my specialty, bringing together my previous background as a researcher and knowledge manager with my future as an applied scientist in the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The curriculum is comprised of core course such as policy analysis, conflict management, and peacebuilding that helped me to gain new insights.

The most important part of the program is the applied field experience under Rotary Peace Fellowship that is specifically designed to help fellows apply their new skills during the summer through employment in international organizations engaged in their respective area of interest. The program helped me to land in a data science internship in the technology company Kimetrica to work with a team of data scientists building an algorithm that can predict crisis and the emergency needs in fragile states. The company graciously accepted my application and provided me with the required intellectual freedom and training in new technologies and methods that I needed to use for my research.

After my internship, I was able to take relevant courses on conflict management and data science from other departments in the campus, thanks to the flexibility of the MIDP program.

During this time, I spent about four months in Denver, Colorado in the Kimetrica data lab where I was able to develop an initial version of a machine learning algorithm that can predict refugee flows across nations. The data and indicator I used to train the model included refugee flows, occurrence of conflict, and other data sets on international development issues. Right now, I am extending the work to my Master’s Project where I am doing  further research to increase the prediction accuracy of the model with better data and more advanced machine learning techniques. Upon completion, the model will estimate future migration flows from one country to another with overall goal of helping agencies to prepare in advance. After my internship, I was able to take relevant courses on conflict management and data science from other departments in the campus, thanks to the flexibility of the MIDP program. This helped me to upgrade my skills in data science and conflict resolution.

The two years I spent at Duke and as a Rotary Peace Fellow were very fruitful in terms of meeting my expectations that were set before joining the program. As a result, I feel like I am well positioned to take the next challenge equipped with the relevant skills and solid academic experience.

— Yared Lemma Hurisa

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