Class of 2022: Colombian Student Champions Justice by Applying Data Science

April 26, 2022 By Emma Candelier , Emma Candelier ,

Karolina Naranjo-Velasco, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, is poised to graduate May 22 with an M.S. in data science. And though she hasn’t yet turned her tassel, she’s already applying data science to a legal research project in her native Colombia that champions justice.

Naranjo-Velasco studied law and worked as a civil servant and human rights lawyer in Colombia before coming to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in public policy. But the programs she considered lacked the tools and techniques to make informed policy design, in her assessment. It became evident to her that she needed to switch her studies, and focus, to data science.

“My country is plagued by cycles of poverty and violence,” Naranjo-Velasco said. “I came to the realization after studying law and practicing that there wasn’t a strong culture in Colombia, as in most of South America, of evidence-based policy decision-making. That’s when I decided to switch my master’s to data science.”

She applied and was accepted to UVA’s School of Data Science. After taking the prerequisite courses and an introduction to coding, she knew it was the right decision.

“I surprised myself and found I actually enjoyed coding,” Naranjo-Velasco said. “Little did I know that this was just the beginning of what I was going to learn.”

The 11-month, residential master’s teaches students essential data analytics topics such as natural-language programming, machine learning, text analytics and deep learning.

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Naranjo-Velsaco leans against a building, smiling.
“Do not be afraid,” Naranjo-Velasco advises other women and Latinos who may be considering careers in data science.

Even as she wraps up her studies, Naranjo-Velasco is already applying her newfound data science skills to a legal research project in Colombia.

“I am collaborating on a policy project focused on land restitution,” she said. “A 2011 law was enacted in Colombia that provides property restitution for victims who lost land during armed conflict. In order to be awarded this benefit, victims have to file a petition through a government agency. Our research question we ask is: ‘Why, after 10 years, is the number of rejected applications so disproportionately high?’”

The project uses optical character recognition software to extract data from a Colombian government website. The goal is to collect and store the legal document information in a database for researchers who are investigating the question.

Naranjo-Velasco said she appreciates being part of the project because it aligns with her passion for justice, and allows her to apply the tools and methodologies she learned at UVA.

“The project is a lot of hard work on top of my master’s coursework, but that’s why I’m here,” she said. “The M.S. in Data Science program is intense, especially for someone like me coming from a law background, but it is also incredibly rewarding.” 

She said she hopes after graduation to champion knowledge-sharing opportunities between North and South America, particularly to support human rights. “State-of-the-art data analysis tools are being developed in the North which cannot be directly transplanted to contexts where the lack of access to data is a challenge,” Naranjo-Velasco said.

She pointed to social disparities as an example.

“Social disparities are directly related to access of information,” she said. “In Colombia, the conversation around data is about how hard it is to obtain. Compare that to the U.S., where data is much more readily accessible. In my classes, we talk about protecting data privacy, which is an important issue. But when the stumbling block is access to data in the first place, it changes one’s perspective entirely.”

Naranjo-Velasco also finds the program rewarding, she said, for the connections and mentorship she has received. “For me, the key value of the program is working with my classmates. I love learning from them, whether it’s how to take better notes or collaborating more effectively.”

Her capstone project, required to complete her degree, helps illustrate this sentiment.

“My capstone research project focused on network mobility of illicit cultural property,” she said. “The project partnered with the Department of Sociology at UVA, and we were tasked with building an automated data pipeline that collects, processes and stores data for antiquity listings on an online marketplace.”

Her group worked closely with faculty advisers from Data Science and the sociology department throughout the year, and are wrapping up the project this semester.

“I learned through the capstone experience that it’s not enough to just create a model,” Naranjo-Velasco said. “You need to think about the process of how to collect data ethically. My team faced data collection challenges, but we worked together toward a process that not only protected people’s privacy, but also sourced the data we needed.”

She added wryly, “You don’t often get the perfect data set, but that’s real life.”

Naranjo-Velasco may not see her path to data science as traditional, but she’s a champion for women and underrepresented groups in the field. While exploring data science master’s programs, she made a point to attend webinars to learn more about the discipline, including a Women in Data Science of Charlottesville conference sponsored by the School of Data Science. The experience inspired her decision to attend UVA.

One year later, Naranjo-Velasco served as a moderator during the same WiDS conference for a panel on human rights and data science.

“I have met brilliant and inspiring women who want to code and carve out a niche for themselves in the data science field,” she said. “There is a sorority of spirit among the women in my data science cohort. I only hope to see more female representation in the future.”

When asked what advice she would impart to anyone interested in data science, particularly women or Latinos, her immediate response was, “Do not be afraid. I studied law partly because I wanted to find responses to systemic violence and impunity, but also because I was afraid of numbers and calculations. I would never have thought I could be good at math.”

Now about to graduate, Naranjo-Velasco is an example of how interdisciplinary the field of data science is and how it can be applied to real-world issues.

“For me, harnessing the positive impact data science can have on human lives is what keeps me motivated.”

Media Contact

Emma Candelier

Director of Communications UVA School of Data Science