Palantir Mentors Help College Students Tackle Climate Resiliency Challenge

There’s never a shortage of opportunity at Palantir to make an impact, as several Palantirians recently demonstrated by mentoring a group of Morehouse College students tackling a project that leverages open data to address climate resiliency.

Each year, The Opportunity Project (TOP), sponsored by Census Open Innovation Labs at the U.S. Census Bureau, hosts a series of projects — called “Sprints” — that bring together technologists, government, and communities to build data-driven solutions to real-world problems over a 12-week period.

The Morehouse students decided to create a data-driven tool that visualizes the impact of climate change on local communities, specifically in their college’s home state. The team had the idea for a tool that allows users to visualize greenhouse gas emissions in the state of Georgia — what they needed next was the right platform and guidance to develop it. Enter Palantir.

Building a Prototype with Palantir Foundry

Seeking a respected tech company to mentor students at minority serving institutions, the U.S. Census Bureau matched Palantir with Morehouse, a historically black college in Georgia. Palantirians from across U.S. federal government deployments volunteered to help the students prototype their climate resiliency tool using Palantir Foundry. To orient them to Palantir’s platform, volunteers created an environment of Palantir Foundry for them to work in and provided training. Palantir engineers and deployment strategists met weekly with the students to discuss their ideas, brainstorm how to design the tool, and help resolve project challenges as they arose.

“The first thing we did was help them narrow down the focus,” said Saad Ljazouli, a deployment strategist at Palantir. “The students had an idea of what they wanted to do, and we spent a lot of time just iterating on the scope to get to a reasonable game plan. They needed to use data from Census and FEMA, so we tried to get the students to think about the data too. Where can they find the data sources they need? How could the data be related?”

In addition to Census and FEMA data, students identified useful data from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One question they hoped the tool could help answer was how greenhouse gas emissions might be impacting Georgia’s most vulnerable communities. To assess this impact, they also integrated Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) data which provides details about an area’s socioeconomic conditions and offers insight into how resilient a community may be to climate change or environmental disasters.

Each week, Palantir met with the students to help them with various stages in the build process. “It was a bit of a special moment when we got the first map configured in Contour that visualized emissions in Georgia,” observed Palantir mentor Jack Christensen. “You could see the students realize how all the backend work and data formatting actually tied together to show a story on the map. It also showed where there were still holes in the data.”

By the end of the 12-week Sprint, the students had created TigerView — a Foundry-based visualization tool that enables users to analyze greenhouse gas density and its correlation with socioeconomically vulnerable communities to help inform mitigation activities and development planning.

At the 2023 TOP Summit in February, the Morehouse team’s TigerView tool was well received, with positive feedback from senior FEMA and U.S. Census Bureau sponsors.

Reflecting on their TOP Spring challenge experience, students shared how important both determination and curiosity are in tackling data and technology challenges. Their team lead, Dr. John Porter, also spoke at the Summit about the need to create more equitable pathways into the technology sector, noting that a greater diversity of perspectives generates better solutions and outcomes.

Both the Seed and the Sower

Morehouse alum and Palantir Account Executive for Foreign Military Sales Armaad Morman was excited to work with students from his alma mater on the TOP University Program. Reflecting on his college days, Armaad recalls the challenge of collecting multi-source data for his senior thesis, acknowledging that having had access to Palantir Foundry then would have been “a godsend.”

Dr. Porter underscored the increasingly crucial role of technology in shaping the future: “As the farmers of today, we have the power to sow or pull up whatever we see as fit for the harvest to feed the generation to come. The difference now is, technology mass-produces that sentiment 1000-fold in minutes. That is why work like this is such an important step…”

Palantir mentor Saad Ljazouli agrees that student exposure to different technologies is important, as is their access to an array of tools and platforms that can make sense of data and lead to new insights. “With Palantir’s participation, we can democratize learnings and knowledge about even more software solutions while students are in the process of learning about software.”

While working with the students, Palantir mentors saw in them potential future colleagues. “Part of it is exposing younger generations of students to all the possible software solutions out there. Another part of it,” mentor and Forward Deployed Engineer Philip Sparks added, “is exposure and access to people. I had a follow up conversation with one of the students about applying to tech companies like Palantir — how to start building your skills now, the types of classes he should take, interviewing tips. The project result was great, but just doing the project itself opened up networking opportunities for students with other people in roles that they might want some day.”

Building skills that advance a more inclusive talent pipeline is an objective of the TOP University Program. Palantir mentors worked with students to hone both the skills and understanding that are necessary to run a project from start to finish. Skill building included project leadership, sharing and delegation of work, how to proactively source public resources, and how to deliver focused presentations that explains the problem statement, data leveraged, and tools involved. They were also supported in understanding how an end-to-end project is formed — from ingesting data all the way to the analysis and its presentation. Mentors underscored the ‘so what’ aspect of analytical work that asks: What questions do we want to be able to answer and why? How are we joining data? And how do we visually represent that data?

“For many of these students, their dream might be to work at a larger tech company. When those of us at a tech company can engage with them through a project, it helps give transparency into the work we do. They can take away lessons to help become the engineer they want to be, as well as think about the type of work they want to support.” — Jack Christensen, Palantir mentor

As a mentor and a 2010 Morehouse alum, Armaad said he’s grateful for the experience and looks forward to future potential collaborations with Morehouse students — and hopes more apply to Palantir.

Palantir Mentors Help College Students Tackle Climate Resiliency Challenge was originally published in Palantir Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.