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Learning to Manage Data in Today's World

April 14 Thursday 10:44 AM

What are some of the most important things you learn in an MPA/MPP program? Data management would certainly be on that list.

This semester, Dr. Toma is teaching a “Government Information Systems” to MPP and MPA students. A cornerstone of policy implementation and research is data. Understanding data collection, management, and analysis is paramount, and we've never had greater access to it than we do today. The aim of the course is to provide students with the tools needed to answer important policy questions with data—where can data be found? How do you work with Excel and Stata, the computer package used by social scientists to calculate statistics on large data sets, to answer these questions? At the beginning of the course, Dr. Toma shared with students that doing a regression is the easiest part of research—finding and preparing the data for analysis is much of the blood, sweat, and tears.

The class is very hands-on—the group meets in the computer lab every week to work with data sets. The semester started with an introduction to the ethics of data management and the IRB process. There have often speakers who are experts in managing data from a particular field, such as education, transportation, and healthcare. Some of these speakers are practitioners in the field, while others have been Ph.D. students who will continue to be great resources for MPA/MPP students.

The class will culminate in a research project. Each student selects a question of interest, finds his or her own data sources, and creates a data set to analyze. “I’m treating this project as an opportunity to get a head-start on my Capstone,” explains Sarah Smith, a first-year student. “I’m really excited about my topic, and I hope the product will be a great marketing tool to showcase my interests and abilities when I start looking for jobs after graduation next year.”

If you’re looking for an elective for the fall, let us make a suggestion—add this class to your shortlist. You’ll be a better researcher for it.

Impressions from CGI U 2016

April 13 Wednesday 02:02 PM

Three Martin School students had the honor of attending the Clinton Global Initiative University in California the first weekend of April. To be selected, students submitted proposals to address a need in education, public health, human rights, poverty, or climate change. Beta Ardiansyah, a second-year Martin School student, was selected to participate in the three-day conference with other students from all over the world. The goal of his proposal is "to end child labor in rubber-farmer households in the Rambang Lubay Indonesia," which he hopes to achieve through subsidizing family income to free up children to go to school.

He really enjoyed the speakers, especially Salman Khan, the CEO of Khan Academy. One of his big takeaways from that particular session was simple—"don’t waste inspiration"! Even if they come to you at 2 am, write them down.

While some of the sessions were more general, others were focused on the practical details of implementing the possible solutions to complex problems in the student project proposals. Beta attended sessions that concentrated on how to maintain your network, fundraising, and marketing your ideas. These sessions gave Beta tangible ideas to make his project better; he realized that for the sake of scalability, his methods would need to be adjusted so that he could get buy-in from all stakeholders.

What was the best feature of the conference? “Networking!” Beta shared, “developing countries in the world have a similar problem” in education, so being able to talk about how different groups have had success in the area was great.

Students who may be interested in participating next year, Beta says he would recommend it 125 percent!

Read CGI’s recap here.

Capstone Chronicles: Part 3

April 13 Wednesday 02:50 PM

This is the third installment of an ongoing series following our MPA and MPP students in their final semester as they complete their Capstone Project, which is an intensive research project that addresses a self-selected policy question.

The end is all too near! Our Capstone cohort has finished their papers and will head to the ring to defend their projects next Thursday. Each student is preparing a 12-minute presentation of their research, to be delivered to a panel of Martin School faculty and expert practitioners. After their presentation, the panel will pepper the students questions about their projects—why they chose a particular method or to further interpret their results. Total, each session is scheduled for 45 minutes. Immediately after the presentation and questions conclude, the faculty meet to discuss whether or not the student’s work passes muster.

To prepare, Dr. Petrovsky has scheduled practice presentation sessions this week with all the students to test their mettle before they head to the lion's den. Each second-year MPA/MPP student is timed and offered feedback from Dr. Petrovsky and other faculty that may attend the practices on their content and presentation style. Because the projects are so diverse, each presentation is, too. Some suggestions are small tweaks to wording or how the content is shown on a Powerpoint, while others anticipate the types of questions the experts will want to dig in to.

Based on the practice sessions we sat in on, we are very excited for the big day next Thursday! Members of our community are welcome—we’ll share more information soon.

Capstone Chronicles, Part 2

April 7 Thursday 10:29 AM

This is the second installment of an ongoing series following our MPA and MPP students in their final semester as they complete their Capstone Project, which is an intensive research project that addresses a self-selected policy question. The finished product includes a written paper and an oral presentation to a panel of experts.

We recently checked up on our Capstone Project cohort! We are more than halfway through the semester at this point, and our group of students has moved on from defining their research question and completing their literature review to finalizing their research design and doing analysis. Right before spring break, the group also had the opportunity to participate in an “elevator pitch” event.

The Art of Research
Methodologies for these projects can vary greatly, from qualitative program evaluations to econometric analyses (or some combination of the two). Selecting the best method can be complicated by the nature of the data available. Austin Coleman, a second-year MPP student, is addressing “the effect of income on broadband access. I chose this topic because of the persistence of the gap in access between individuals living in urban and rural areas,” he explains. How can you design your methodology to answer this question? Austin selected multivariate regression analysis; he’s using county-level data from the FCC and the Department of Agriculture.

However, he’s been presented with challenges in regards to his data. “The most interesting impact the data has had on my methodology is related to the amount of state-level variation present,” Austin notes. “State-level factors influence data aggregated at the county level, which I suspect is due to variation in state regulatory policy and the providers present in each state.”

Pitching your Ideas
The Thursday prior to spring break, students met with six volunteer professionals from a variety of backgrounds to present their research in sixty seconds– including a description of the topic, how it is being researched, and why it matters. No pressure, right? During the event, students met one-on-one with two of the experts; after giving their pitch, the practitioner and the student could chat for a few minutes about their research and presentation in greater depth. The feedback was positive– our experts were especially heartened to see students using primary data sources and thinking through implementation considerations.

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. David Agrawal

March 10 Thursday 03:59 PM

We caught up with Dr. David Agrawal, an Assistant Professor of Economics both at the Martin School and in the Department of Economics, to learn more about his interests. His website can be found here.
What is your favorite topic to teach? Why?
Taxes!  Taxes change the behavior of people.  Taxes can change how much someone will work or save.  They can influence charitable giving and decisions on where to live or work.  Taxes can influence the timing of births and even the timing of deaths.  Given that taxes can potentially influence so many aspects of behavior, I want my students to learn whether these responses are large or small and how the size of these responses influences optimal tax policy.
What research are you currently working on?
A recent paper, “The Internet as a Tax Haven? The Effect of the Internet on Tax Competition” studies how municipalities adjust their sale tax rate in response to e-commerce.  If online transactions are untaxed, the Internet may act as a tax haven and put downward pressure on local sales tax rates. On the other hand, if e-commerce is taxed, the Internet may act as an anti-haven, allowing cities and towns to collect taxes on remote transactions that previously went untaxed.  The results in this paper suggest that many towns perceive the Internet as a tax haven and lower their tax rate if they have a higher number of households with access to the Internet.  In addition, William Fox (University of Tennessee) and I are writing a policy research paper “Sales Taxes in an e-Commerce Generation” that discusses the economic argument for levying sales taxes on the basis of the destination of the sale.  We then discuss various policy options for how the United States can reform its sales and use tax system to better achieve destination taxation on online transactions.  In conducting this research, we highlight several economic lessons from recent European Union reforms designed to address taxing digital products.
What is the “hot topic” in your field right now?
One of the hottest topics in public finance is the study of notches and the bunching of individuals on the tax-favored side of the notch.  A notch is a discontinuous change in an individual’s budget set.  These notches in the tax code imply that a very small change in an individual’s behavior can cause very large changes in tax payments.  Our tax system features many notches, but they have only been studied recently.  One example is the Saver’s Credit.  A married couple with income of $30,000 that contributes more than $2000 of savings will receive a $1000 tax credit.  However, if this couple declares $30,001 of income and has the same saving, the credit will fall to only $400.  The incentives to work an hour less or hide some income from the tax authority are large.  My advisor’s article, “Buenas Notches: Lines and Notches in Tax System Design” was an important article that helped inspire research on notches.
What is your favorite thing about the Martin School?
I enjoy having many colleagues who are supportive of my research agenda and who provide great feedback on my research.  I also appreciate having several colleagues that conduct research on taxation.