Reflections from a SUDS Founder

Since graduating a few weeks ago, I've had some time to think and reflect on my time spent helping to found and build SUDS over the course of two years.  

In August 2015, I founded Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) at Carnegie Mellon University.  It began as a student group dedicated to promoting the study of urban science, open data, and civic hacking. Since its launch, we’ve grown to over 400 members across every discipline, including computer science, architecture, machine learning, public policy, and even physics.

While I didn’t know if anyone else would join at the time (I didn’t even know the term “smart cities”), I knew that there was groundswell of interest in the convergence of data science and local government, as evidenced by programs like CMU’s MS in Public Policy and Management - Data Analytics track, NYU CUSP’s MS in Applied Urban Science, and University of Chicago’s MS in Computational Analytics and Public Policy (MSCAPP), none of which existed (at least in name) 5 years ago.   

Therefore, I’d like to share a few lessons that we’ve learned at SUDS about how cities and students can work together. The general theme is an unsurprising one: partnerships. In this case, a partnership with local government, community organizations, and the university.  

Local Government

We’ve been lucky in Pittsburgh to have an exceptional Innovation & Performance (I&P) department that added SUDS into their Inclusive Innovation Roadmap and helped give our organization credibility and a process for self-evaluation.  We now meet regularly with I&P to provide updates, which keep us honest and helps to provide structure – which is essential given the tendency for student groups to become nebulous and experience high turnover.  They have supported us and we have supported them, participating in their annual city-wide hacking competition Steel City Codefest.  An effective partnership involves both give-and-take.

Community Organizations

We also realized early on that, while we started as a student group, we needed to be community-facing. In fact, we openly welcome individuals from the community to become members and participate in every event. In our case, the Western PA Regional Data Center was an outstanding resource for bringing community members into the process. Through this connection, as well as partnering with our local Code for America brigade, we met organizations like the Alliance for Police Accountability, Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, Healthy Ride Pittsburgh, and the Port Authority, all of whom our members provided analysis for in 2016. These projects can be viewed on our SUDS website.


The university has to be your strongest partner. In the case of CMU, we were lucky to have the support of an organization called Metro21, an initiative that uses a research, development and deployment (RD&D) model to develop 21st century solutions to the challenges facing metro areas. In fact, its emphasis on city-university partnerships spurred the creation of a national network called MetroLab Network, which has grown to over 40 cities. Check to see if your city is a participating member.

Finally, you ultimately need to earn the trust and legitimacy from fellow students. You need to create programming that’s fun and offers different levels of engagement, recognizing that students are busy. While some may wish to just attend one tour of a local tech company, others may wish to attend skills-based workshops to learn about new data tools or meet regularly at a community hack night to work on an ongoing data project with a local community organization. I haven’t figured out yet how to breed the latter, but when you find those people, give them ownership and help them succeed however you can.

5 Tips for Transitioning Leadership in a Student Org

Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) started as a student organization at Carnegie Mellon in August 2015 to create a space on campus for students and community members to come together to work on ongoing data projects with community organizations, learn new data tools through workshops, and learn about the “state of the practice” from speakers. Like all student organizations, one of our greatest challenges was the nearly constant turnover of members. Most importantly for us, we were facing the loss of all of our founding Board members in May 2017, all of whom were graduating. While we knew that there was interest among students and community members to keep the organization alive (we had over 400 members), we were unsure how much interest there would be to lead the organization.

Therefore, we put into place an aggressive strategy for recruiting, selecting, and training a diverse group of students to join the Board. The five key points of our strategy are below. While these are SUDS-specific, I think that any student group transitioning leadership can adopt this strategy.

1.       Invite potential leaders to take up responsibilities early. Nearly 6 months before we started the official transition, we began to open up our Board meetings and invited other students who had shown an interest in leadership to attend these meetings and take on responsibilities. In fact, people outside of the Board planned nearly all events that occurred in the months leading up to the transition. By the outgoing board stepping out of the way, they created room for the upcoming leaders to step in. This helped the current Board work closely with these new potential leaders and allowed the potential leaders to “see themselves” in the organization.

2.       Schedule one-on-one meetings. In the 2-3 months leading up to the application process, I encouraged current Board members to meet one-on-one for coffee or lunch with students who had shown an interest in SUDS. At these meetings, we spoke with the students about their aspirations and interests and encouraged them to apply, if we thought SUDS fit with those interests. This direct appeal was extremely successful, and nearly everyone we met with ultimately submitted an application.    

3.       Hold an organizational “open house.” This step would not have been possible without the support of the local civic tech community. We hosted a leadership open house at a nearby restaurant and invited all students interested in leadership and our community partners to attend and share in food, drinks, and conversation. This was a terrific way for students to see the broader ecosystem in which SUDS worked and helped SUDS differentiate itself. Incoming SUDS Director Chris Worley remarked that “the event was attended by community and student leaders and allowed those with an interest in taking a more active role in "doing good with data" a chance to meet with the folks who are doing just that in Pittsburgh.” We also scheduled it so that it occurred the day before the application opened, so that the social aspect of SUDS was fresh on their mind when applying.

4.       Make applications easy and the selection process transparent. We knew at the beginning that we were looking for a transparent, fair way to encourage a broader group of people from diverse backgrounds to apply and join, as SUDS prides itself on being one of the few truly multi-disciplinary organizations on campus. When we finally opened the application process, we sought to make it easy while still being thorough, as we did not want a burdensome application to be the reason someone new did not apply. In addition, we changed our selection process from a voting process to an application process. There were two reasons for this: first, our membership structure is loose so there is a question of who should be eligible to vote and second, we found that voting tended to elect people from the same degree programs that were already in the organization.

5.       Have a leadership retreat. Approximately 2 weeks after the Board was selected, we scheduled a half-day retreat at a non-profit off campus with the new and old Board members, again with the support of the civic tech community. This not only served as a “knowledge transfer” for the incoming group, but also allowed the outgoing members an opportunity to talk about SUDS mission, objectives, and aspirations that they had for the organization as well as allowing the incoming members an opportunity to get to know one another.

What were the outcomes of our strategy? Well, we received 13 applications from undergraduates, graduates and PhD candidates across 4 of the 7 colleges at CMU, a healthy pool for an organization that previously only had 4 Board positions all from the same college. We ended up selecting 10 of these applicants and filling all vacant Board positions, while also creating two new ones – Undergraduate Liaison and Speaker Series Chair.

While we were extremely pleased at these outcomes, and at the enthusiasm and commitment the incoming leadership has already demonstrated, there are always areas for improvement and with SUDS there is no exception. I think the organization can continue to build a sense of inclusiveness by actively partnering with other organizations on campus in order to recruit a diverse membership body (and by extension, a diverse leadership structure). While I am proud of everything we accomplished in the first 1.5 years as an organization, I am even more excited to hear about the good work that is yet to come.