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.