Ahwaz Akhtar PhD Student
George Washington University
What does your job actually entail? I regularly describe myself as a one-man army, which is an apt description of anyone who’s been the first hire on a data team. I work across the fields of public health and education so I’ve had experience of setting up analytics/data science teams in two different contexts which has been very valuable in developing a cross-functional way of thinking. I am associated with the Indus Hospital and Health Network (IHHN) and the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP) where I help teams plan, collect and analyze “right-fit evidence” to answer questions regarding improvement in service delivery and strategic planning, among others. IHHN provides free-of-cost healthcare to anyone who walks through the door which is a big step towards health equity in an LMIC such as Pakistan. Therefore, my work includes a lot of coaching, setting up systems and training others to make effective use of analytics tools. After all this, if I can catch a break, it’s me and my beloved RStudio terminal as I work towards my PhD at the George Washington University.
When not at work you can be found...
Planning my next escape either to a cricket game or a natural park. Fun fact: I’ve run into Bear Grylls while camping in Sweden and I’ve never felt a stronger urge to, y’know, pretend we’ve run out of water.
Why did you join the DSxHE community?
Aside from the cool vibes, I loved the community’s relatability and the fact that it’s (mostly) young professionals building their careers in different places determined to do the best in advancing outcomes for those needing it the most.
Initially, I actually got sucked in through the wonderful Slack community first before I decided to take the plunge by helping organize the DSxHE launch event, and before I knew it I’m a full-time organizer to boot!
What’s a topic in data science/health equity that you know/care a lot about - why is it important/interesting, tell us about it!
Representation in data aka “data deserts”. I’ve wrestled with not having data much more than having to analyze some tricky data that it renders all my fancy training worthless! When helping design programs, I have had to request, fight, cajole and do anything necessary to get the data guardians to release the information. And then when I get the data it’s in PDFs with no standard format which kills me even more. Otherwise, one has to collect primary data which is an expensive endeavor for non-profits. I don’t want deserving populations to miss out on programs designed to alleviate their issues due to them being in a “data desert”. I want to be able to piece together a picture of populations in the finest detail possible while being considerate of resource constraints. I believe we should be able to do simpler data collection better and it’s something that keeps me thinking most of the time.
What’s a recent article/book/video/blog/event you’ve come across on data science and/or health equity that you found interesting and why?
I recently read about organizing and scaling effective data teams by Rob Dearborn. Link here: https://www.robdearborn.com/2022/03/13/organizing-and-scaling-an-effective-data-team/
I found this interesting because a lot of us come from non-data science or management backgrounds and also just because the field is so new it’s important to be able to reflect on what organizing principles work better in data teams. Advancing health equity needs to come with a plan and I hope that through DSxHE we are able to disseminate this kind of practical advice to multiply the impact of our members. Another good example of this would be the work by Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust's CDU Data Science Team (https://github.com/CDU-data-science-team). I love their work!
If you could be transformed into one animal, which one would you choose?
A fox. Only because it would allow me to answer the age-old question: what does the fox say?
What is your go-to lazy dinner?
Ramen with eggs – I learned how to make it in university and it’s a kicker carb+protein combo.
What item is worth spending more money on?
Good mattresses. My aching bones and joints meet their slice of heaven for 8 full hours each night, couldn’t be more grateful!
What is your favorite thing to do in the summertime?
Since I spend my summers in Pakistan, summers are hot and humid only broken by the arrival of monsoon rains. I love a monsoon afternoon and the smell of the earth after moderate amounts of rain, accompanied by fried snacks such as samosas and tea. Divine!
What is humanity’s most redeeming quality?
The ability to love