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Black History Month Spotlight: African American Accomplishments & Their Use of Data Science

As a company that utilizes data science constantly to build a better future, it is important that we recognize the men and women who have played a part in making this industry where it is today through their contributions. Throughout history, the African American community’s accomplishments to society have often gone ignored and unrecognized. For Black History Month, Boulevard would like to shed light on three individuals that have made an impact to society through their use of data science, visualization, and analytics and have revolutionized the world through their achievement: Katherine Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Valerie Thomas. These figures have not only broke boundaries in their respective fields but did so with the odds against them. They have encouraged others through their determination and strength and opened the doors for future people of color to follow in their footsteps.

The subject of a book and recently award-winning film of the same name, Hidden Figures[2] [8], Katherine Johnson was one of the first African American woman employed at NASA and oversaw the success multiple spaceflights, including the 1969 moon landing. Before working at NASA, Johnson worked for their precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA),[2][3][9] where she studied wake turbulence by analyzing data from flight tests and plane crashes.[3] She began as an anonymous “female computer”[1][10] who eventually became recognized as one of the first woman to receive credit on a NASA research report, and would eventually go on to co-author 25 more reports. Johnson helped play a vital role in the orbital equations used to conduct the trajectory analysis on the Mercury Program’s Freedom 7, which became the first spaceflight piloted by astronaut Alan B. Shepard in 1961.[2][8]

She also played a vital role in calculating the equations for John Glenn’s launch into space to become the first man to orbit the Earth.[5] Glenn had so much respect for Johnson that he refused to fly unless Johnson was there to verify the mission’s calculations.[1][2][8] In 1969, Johnson would contribute to one of NASA’s most ambitious projects to this day: the Apollo Moon Landings. Working with a team of engineers, she calculated the exact time and location of departure for the Apollo flight that sent the first humans to the moon and back.[8][9] Johnson’s spectacular career would garner various awards and honors throughout her life including the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Obama.[5][7] Johnson’s abilities and intelligence not only opened the doors of opportunities for many African American women, but also contributed to some of the most important historical moments in human history.

Being the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University[15][17][18] and a professor at the historically Black Atlanta University,[13][19] W.E.B. Du Bois established himself as a prominent intellectual leader in sociology and history,[13] critically thinking about the issues surrounding the African American population. His views of African Americans embracing their heritage challenged the ideas held by some of his contemporaries like Booker T. Washington.[18][19] Du Bois’ ability to articulate the issues African Americans faced would lead him to becoming the one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)[18] as well as the organization’s leading voice as the editor of its monthly newsletter The Crisis[18] that was known for discussing intense and powerful topics. Through the newsletter, Du Bois highlighted the pervasive and notorious practice of lynching and expressed his support for unionized labor.[19] The newsletter, at one point, reached a circulation of over 100,000 by 1920 and helped to increase new memberships and overall support for the NAACP. Du Bois’ written works included The Souls of Black Folk,[18][19] that is still a fixture in African American literature today, and Black Reconstruction in America, which sought to debunk in detail the false theory that African Americans were responsible for the failures of Reconstruction.

While his contributions to society through public speaking and writing became widespread, it was his ability to highlight his cause through data science and data visualization that helped validate the long unrecognized claims of the African American struggle. In 1896, Du Bois would publish one of the first published examples of statistical analyses in the field of sociology while conducting research at the University of Pennsylvania titled The Philadelphia Negro.[16][17] He would continue his passion for using data for the 1900 Paris Exposition, where Du Bois led a team that curated and prepared the historic sociological display called The Exhibit of American Negroes.[11][15][16] Along with various significant items including a statue of Frederick Douglass and hundreds of photos depicting African American society[13] provided by others involved, Du Bois produced prolific data-driven infographics, diagrams, charts, and graphs that were at times created in distinctively unique DuBois-ian fashion.

These data visualizations often interconnected his data between infographics for a broader analysis[15] and he would often invent new methods and chart types, including the Du Bois spiral and the dueling-fan chart,[11][15] to tell the story of African Americans accomplishments and to combat racism with science to a wider audience.[11][13] Although at the time his work would go unrecognized, these graphics helped utilize statistical data and facts to push back against society’s stereotypes and prejudices against African Americans.[15] W.E.B. Du Bois and his various methods to uplift African American society, particularly through his use of data science, has made a profound and lasting impact on the world to this day.

There was a time when your race and sex played a key role in the future of your life. But for Valerie Thomas, she determined her own destiny through her hunger for knowledge. As a young girl she became passionate about math, science, and technology although discouraged by the people around her including her father.[20][25][27] She went on to graduate from Morgan State University, where she studied both mathematics and physics, notably becoming one of the only two women that majored in physics during that time.[20] [25][27] In 1964, she was hired at NASA as a data analyst,[25][29] where she managed the development of an image processing system that could send images from space to Earth and would be incorporated into the Landsat satellite.[25] This image processing system had various uses including an application called the Large Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE), which monitored global crop production.[20][22][25] The information provided from this application would then, in turn, be made public as a regular service for the agricultural community both domestically and internationally.[22] For the first time global crop monitoring could be possible through the use of this technology. LACIE would eventually reveal that crop monitoring would only be the beginning and would eventually expand into other works of NASA scientists.[22]

In the years after her contribution to the Landsat program through the LACIE application, she would attend a scientific seminar exhibit that used concave mirrors to display an illusion to the viewer.[27] This would give Valerie the inspiration for her most famous technological contribution, the Illusion Transmitter, an early 3D technology.[21] The transmitter could transmit an optical illusion of an image between concave mirrors and became the basis of 3D movies and games we know today.[25][27] This technology would be heavily utilized by NASA and is still being explored today for more substantial purposes, like surgeries and modernizing monitor screens.[28]

Thomas would continue to contribute to her legacy at the NASA program, participating in projects to research the ozone layer, Halley’s Comet, satellite technology, and the Voyager spacecraft.[20] She placed a large focus on mentoring and would mentor a wide range of student varying in ages ranging from elementary school children to adults.[20][26] Valerie Thomas would eventually become the Associate Chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office[25] and earn prestigious awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award and the NASA’s Equal Opportunity Medal.[28] Her life and contributions to the field of science and technology have opened the doors for African American women everywhere and encourages minorities and women everywhere to pursue careers within the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).[29]

Throughout American history, African Americans have played a pivotal role in this country’s success. These figures, like many others, pushed themselves to overcome adversity and become leaders not only within their respective fields but in society. Whether it be breakthrough inventions like Valerie Thomas’ Illusion Transmitter, groundbreaking literature written by W.E.B. Du Bois, or developing the calculations to historical launches like Katherine Johnson, one thing these three leaders have had in common is their application of data science to help their respective causes. Today, data science is leveraged by a diverse group of people in various career paths and can be applied to almost any cause or purpose. Leaders, like the ones mentioned in this article, have not only given African Americans a voice and an opportunity, but have also showed how data science can be a foundation for knowledge and success. In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois;

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.

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Mar 21, 2023



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