| by Jessie Raymond

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META lab
Logan Jensen MPA ’24, a META Lab research assistant, right, helps an Intro to Data Policy student install and run R Commander, a program that helps students run statistical tests.

The Mixed Methods Evaluation, Training, and Analysis Lab (META Lab) got its start a decade or so ago, thanks to the same force that keeps it going today: the efforts of curious and motivated students.

Today, a staff of student research assistants (RAs) provide Institute students and faculty, as well as community partners, with data analysis services ranging from program advice to software training to full analyses.

Phil Murphy, associate professor of policy analytics and director of the META Lab, says he and colleague Fernando DePaolis, dean of academic operations and integration, had long thought about starting some sort of center for students who had taken a data analytics class and liked it and wanted to do more. “We wanted to try to set up a place as kind of a playground, a place where students could use the stuff and gather like-minded people.”

But the idea didn’t move forward until nine or 10 years ago, when two students—Shawn Harris MPA ’13 and Omar Salem MAIPS ’13—asked for help. They had been working with an organization in Salinas and had collected a lot of sensitive data but wouldn’t have enough time to complete a report before graduation.

Murphy and DePaolis set the two students up in what they called “unpaid fellowships” and, with the help of Barbara Burke, created a makeshift office with a few surplus computers in a converted closet. “From there, Shawn and Omar just kind of took it upon themselves to recruit all kinds of students across campus,” Murphy says, “and in no time, there were students coming to this new META Lab.”  

Soon Harris and Salem began seeking funding and looking for people they could help. They started coaching faculty and staff. “The students really just kind of gravitated toward it. They loved it and they started just kind of making up their own projects.” They even came up with the name.

Today, the lab occupies five rooms in the McGowan building, including meeting rooms, which are equipped with computers and wall monitors. At any given time, the lab employs between one and two dozen RAs. It’s a pretty horizontal structure: Murphy oversees a small number of managers, who coordinate projects and schedule staff. Murphy says he serves mostly as an advisor, though he stays busy writing grants to ensure that students can be paid for their work. 

The Role of the Lab

The META Lab provides services at all stages of data analysis, teaching students and faculty how to find the data they need, how to use tools and techniques to organize that data, and how to present the results in a meaningful and understandable way. Lab manager Rebecca Singer MAIPD/ITED ’23 says META Lab RAs help teach data analytics tools and techniques in such classes as Murphy’s Intro to Data course and Kent Glenzer’s Qualitative Analysis seminar. “We do a lot of help compiling data for the Intro to Data class and setting those people up,” she says. “In the more advanced classes, people come to us as well, just with questions.”

In an effort to reach more students and faculty, META Lab employees have been building learning modules, online courses that teach software such as Excel and Tableau as well as data collection methods and statistical analysis. Kojin Glick, a second-semester student who joined the META lab in the summer, says the modules are a way for professors to make the most of classroom time by essentially outsourcing the software training and “going straight to what makes data interesting.” It also allows META Lab RAs to work with more people simultaneously, giving them more time to “handle the tough questions.” And those who need more hands-on help can set up appointments to meet one-on-one.

Singer, who is pursuing a joint master’s in International Policy and Development/International Trade with a specialization in Financial Crime Management, joined the META Lab last fall and became one of the managers in December. She explains that META Lab RAs also help students identify what they want data to do for them. Some students, she says, know what they want but don’t know how to use the software; others come in asking for help with a certain type of chart, for instance, but in working with an RA end up finding a more meaningful way to present their data.

In the Community

The META Lab also partners with community organizations on real-world issues. The lab’s first client—and, in fact, the reason Harris and Salem created the META Lab—was the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP), a group of for-profit and faith-based organizations in Salinas who together are working to reduce youth violence. In 2016, the META Lab produced the results of a two-year study for CASP related to police-community relations. 

Murphy thinks it’s vital that students are doing real work—and getting paid for it. “I want them to have skin in the game,” he says. “I want them to work with a client. I want them to feel like they could look like fools if they don’t do this well. They’ve got to feel that.”

This year, the META Lab has several grant-funded projects planned. Among them is a study for the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers (CHSP) in Seaside. This will most likely take the form of a full write-up with graphics displaying data collected from multiple databases showing how often individuals took advantage of various services over certain time periods. The report will help the organization determine how best to allocate its resources. 

Another is an analysis for Projects for Peace, a global initiative that awards up to $10,000 to undergraduate and graduate students to design grassroots projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict. The META Lab in this case will most likely generate a graphic analysis that illustrates the impact these peace projects are having around the world.

Raising Awareness

Glick says he hopes more students and faculty will learn about all the lab has to offer. “We know how valuable we can be to pretty much every department on campus,” noting that data analysis can extend beyond numbers. “Languages are full of interesting linguistic data.” 

Murphy calls this “qualitative analysis.” People generally think of data analysis in quantitative terms, or “crunching numbers.” But qualitative analysis can look deeper at things such as human behavior. Using software to track such things as the number of times certain words or phrases are used in a document, for instance, can reveal patterns and meaning that would be difficult to pick up even through careful reading. 

META Lab Skills

Murphy says that for students who want to work in the META Lab, experience in specific data analytics software is not as important as the ability to learn independently. “If somebody has analytic skills, or if they’re very precocious, then we want them on the team.” 

Singer says, “We like to have a lot of minds because we bounce ideas off each other. We all have different skill sets. Kojin brings programming and website creation, which is something we’ve been missing for a little while, so that’s super exciting. Whenever that happens, we can push forward and be more creative.”

COVID and the resulting closure of campus dealt the META Lab some setbacks. But Singer says the students are now reestablishing a collaborative environment, one that can carry on as another class graduates each year. “We’re getting a lot better at cohesiveness and onboarding and passing on the institutional knowledge.”

A Rewarding Experience

Glick, who is pursuing an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, says he initially began working at the META Lab as a “résumé builder,” but it’s become much more to him. “As I’ve interacted with more and more people here, it’s also providing me a huge opportunity to tap the collective resources of all these folks who care about data,” he says.

Murphy, too, says the collaborative atmosphere of the lab allows students to learn from one another. “They end up picking up more skills than they learn in class.” And those skills, Murphy says, are reinforced when students teach what they’ve learned to others.

Singer calls the META Lab a “stabilizing force” during her time at MIIS, saying, “What I found most rewarding about the META Lab is working in teams with people who have taught me about things I didn’t even know to ask. The META Lab has been a really wonderful way to create an in-person community that spans the disciplines, and we have a connection with staff and faculty as well as other students.”

If you’re a currently enrolled MIIS student interested in expanding and sharing your data skills, send an email to miismetalab@gmail.com with a short letter of interest and your résumé. You can also email the META Lab if you have a project you’d like help with.

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