NASA Datanaut Jerelyn Rodriguez

NASA Datanaut Jerelyn Rodriguez is on a mission to use data and technology to achieve positive social impact. She is the cofounder and CEO of The Knowledge House (TKH), an organization that brings technology education programs to young adults in the Bronx, in an effort to match up students to a growing, in-demand field. Even though her role there is giant, it’s not all she does, not by a long shot.

NASA Datanaut Jerelyn Rodriguez

Before founding TKH, Rodriguez coordinated STEM afterschool programming and was the Bronx field director for a campaign for a candidate for a New York City Public Advocate. She was the national program director for Students for Education Reform and has worked in public schools, teaching and designing programming for students. She has a degree in film studies from Columbia University. Rodriguez has spoken on panels at SXSW, New York City Social Innovation Festival and NASA Space Apps Challenge. She is on the leadership council for south bronx rising together, a fellow at camelback ventures and new leaders council, and the entrepreneur in residence at BXL Bronx Business Incubator.

In January 2016, Rodriguez was recently named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the field of education.

1) Many Datanauts have an inner space geek - what attracts you to the world of data and technology?

I’m passionate about social impact and digital storytelling. I’ve been studying film and producing digital media since high school. In college, I learned about the history of cinema’s technology and got to experience first hand what it was like to record video on mini tapes and then high-definition cards. This technology transformation amazed me and I wanted to learn more about the power of technology.

After college, I started working as a community organizer, where I not only got to hear and tell people’s stories, but I used data to bring people together. On political campaigns, I used voter data to learn about what citizens wanted out of their elected officials and used community mapping tools to target specific populations. Today, I get to teach youth how to create technology that solves community problems and this involves using data everyday whether it’s to collect data about user pain points or to find market trends by analyzing research and datasets.

2) How are you applying the use of data in your work?

The Knowledge House is using community mapping to identify the existing career pathways for young Bronxites; our student developers are currently working on creating a digital interactive map for this.

TKH works with community partners who provide us with directories of local agencies focusing on youth pathways. One organization provides us with information about the local schools, GED programs, and community based organizations that provide wrap around services to youth. Other organizations provide information on the existing workforce programs that are available to youth. Using data collected through community mapping helps us identify the existing career pathways for Bronxites where we've noticed disconnects in the transitions between K-12 schools and postsecondary training and a major disconnect between school and work. The promise of the growing tech industry motivated us to launch a Bronx-wide initiative, the Bronx Digital Pipeline, to convene local tech educators and industry professionals who as a collective align on goals and strategy to match at least 1,500 young adults to tech jobs. To guide us, TKH adds a third layer of community mapping, identifying all the tech training providers in the area as well as any tech companies who have the potential to hire youth. TKH is currently building an employer network to support youth talent so that as they develop professionally, youth are engaging in industry by seeking tech mentors, attending networking events, competing at hackathons, and finally applying to the right jobs.

A second project I’ve been working on uses behavior mapping to identify challenges and opportunities young people in the Bronx face when seeking tech jobs. To do this, TKH enlisted a data and design consultancy, Thicket Labs, and recent alumni from The Knowledge House, to participate in a design thinking challenge aimed to reconnect “out of school and out of work” young adults to tech training and jobs. Together, Thicket and 4 of our students carried out research and design activities to engage stakeholders from relevant networks and communities to weigh in with more perspectives.

Once we understood the core themes and components of both problem and solution, we could integrate secondary sources like academic studies and sector-specific best practices. By the end of the process, we had a validated framework for how young adults navigate the transition from school to career, and our youth were well on their way to mastering the design thinking mindset. Together, Thicket and our youth developed a viable product, TechTankNYC, which is a tech-enabled program that connects youth to tech mentors who can help them navigate the job seeking process. Our students are now launching TechTankNYC as our first youth startup and it already has its first cohort of mentors and mentees!

3) What does it take to create a vibrant data problem-solving community?

To create a data problem-solving community we need to have honest conversations and use empathy to ideate solutions that alleviate pain points. When students are enrolled at TKH, we begin by addressing the problem that as an organization we’re trying to solve. We have honest conversations about the Bronx being the poorest community in the country and point to the research on the Bronx that’s often published by people who’ve never stepped foot in the borough. These are painful conversations, because our youth live in poverty every day and don’t take a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture of their living conditions. But these conversations and looking at stats together empower them to take matters into their own hands. We then use labor market research to identify job opportunities in the tech industry and the trends of high-demand skills for 16-24 year olds. We also discuss the lack of diversity and innovation companies face and how young Bronxites can help the tech field. The facts motivate youth to pursue careers in tech.

When our youth begin their final projects, they first think of community issues they want to solve. This involves researching data that provides evidence of community pain points but it especially involves going out into the community and talking to people on the ground. We emphasize that using data isn’t only about looking at research papers and graphs, it’s about talking to people and sharing their stories.

Our youth create tech products that address community or user needs. Youth learning front-end web development, create websites that raise awareness about issues like the challenge navigating the college application process and mental health resources. Our more advanced full-stack developers use APIs to pull public data from government sites and create apps that help the average person engage with information. We have a student developer who has worked for clients like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration creating video games that allow youth to learn and engage with science data.  

4) What's an exciting data or technology opportunity right now to solve a specific challenge?

There are more engaging ways to share data now. With new technology we can visualize information and make it pretty, interactive, and user-friendly. We see companies using infographics and interactive heat maps so that their users can engage with data and easily understand large data sets.

In low-income communities, I’ve seen a need to use data visualization to identify local resources and community trends. For example, in the Bronx, there is a growing trend of collective impact initiatives, including South Bronx Rising Together, Bronx Corridors Project and Rise NYC. Community organizations are coming together to convene around specific issues like housing or increasing career pathways for disconnected young adults. This is amazing, because people are now coming together to collectively solve problems. Data is integral to making this work efficient. Many of these groups benefit from community mapping as a way to identify existing resources and any voids that need to be filled. Community mapping combined with behavior mapping will allow community organizations to match youth to the right support resources depending on how that young person thinks, feels and behaves.

About Neisan

NASA Datanaut Community Manager