June 18, 2018

Jerica Copeny | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Innovators

Jerica Copeny


Civic Data Scientist, Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, IN


MS, Human Computer Interaction, DePaul University, 2015; MLIS, Dominican University, 2011


@jericacopeny on Twitter

Photo by Douglas Gritzmacher


Life Behind the Numbers

In November 2017, a few months after she became Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library’s (EVPL) civic data scientist—one of the few in the country at a public library—Jerica Copeny volunteered at the inaugural conference of Data for Black Lives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab.

During a session on the unequal impact of algorithms on criminal justice sentencing, she was struck by a comment one panelist made: there is “life behind the numbers.”

That concept “is one of the anchors in…how I approach my work,” she says. “There is huge accountability as a data scientist…to make sure I always honor…the humans that are affected, influenced, or behind the data I work with.”

At EVPL, Copeny mines civic, or public, data to “uncover, investigate, and seek to understand why and how something can be better understood,” she explains. “I am also a data translator, where I bring and communicate data in formats that make them digestible to process.”

That means she does data analysis and visualizations of topics important to the local community; data engineering to create a data infrastructure for the library; and data literacy, teaching library staff how to extract and expose library data. A key goal is to illuminate “how data can influence how we understand social issues such as health inequities, race, and education,” she says.

In Evansville, these are critical concerns. The city was deemed a federal Promise Zone in 2016 by the Obama administration, bumping up its potential for federal funding. The designated area (about two-fifths of Evansville) has a 39 percent poverty rate among its 22,000 residents, high unemployment, and fewer than 30 percent with a high school diploma. Clarifying the life behind the numbers is more important than ever.

That is one reason why Copeny is trying to make it easier for others to follow in her footsteps. She created a groundbreaking Civic Data Science Model consisting of three areas: how to approach a data science project in the community; the mind-set a data scientist needs; and a civic data toolkit. The toolkit highlights increasing data literacy and relationship-building, as well as open source tools, project management techniques, support infrastructure, and much more.

Her goal is to “establish a language, an approach, and working knowledge of how data science looks in the community and the public library,” says Copeny, who is presenting the civic data model in April 2018 at the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTEN) in New Orleans.

EVPL impact officer Sharon Comstock says Copeny’s “incisive intellect, social consciousness, and humble leadership” inspire her. “While [Jerica] would not describe herself as such, she is an utter trailblazer in both librarianship and life.”

This article was published in Library Journal's March 15, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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