Berkeley Student Uses Data Science to Close the Justice Gap for Marginalized Communities
Elijah Mercer (MIDS ’25) has been awarded the Spring 2023 Jack Larson Data for Good Fellowship for his work involving the use of data science to support the interests of marginalized groups and communities, and for active and sustained community service. The fellowship supports Master of Information and Data Science (MIDS) students who desire to use data science to benefit society.
Growing up in the city of Newark, New Jersey, Mercer came from a community heavily impacted by poverty, crime, gun violence, and an education system struggling to meet the needs of its students. Despite dealing with both societal and personal roadblocks, he graduated top of his class and headed off to American University in Washington, D.C. where he studied criminology.
His interest in working with marginalized communities developed post-graduation, when he enrolled in the Teach for America program and began teaching middle and high school English classes to Baltimore City youth. Wanting the students to succeed, Mercer turned to data for the first time in hopes of seeing tangible results at the end of the school year. He tracked student behavioral, academic, and personal outcomes throughout the year and found that his students had improved their reading, comprehension, and writing levels by two whole years.
Data scientists’ responsibility in society is to leverage data to challenge the status quo. [They] must balance using their technical skill sets and their moral compasses to assist groups that often cannot speak for themselves.
While immensely proud of the change he had spurred in Baltimore City, Mercer knew there was more he could do. Thus, over the next 5-6 years, he worked as a crime and law enforcement analyst with the New York City Police Department (NYPD), San Francisco District Attorney’s Office (SFDA), and at Facebook. During his time at the NYPD, he helped improve quality of life issues for residents by using data driven approaches to decrease crime and car breaks in. While at the SFDA’s Office, he helped improve data transparency between the police department, the public, and prosecutors by creating data driven gun crime and violence reports and helping create a public data dashboard. And at Facebook, he helped protect user data by analyzing legal documents and making sure law enforcement agencies abided by the company’s protocols.
“I wanted to become more than just an analyst,” Mercer said, “I wanted to be able to transform the data that I analyzed into actionable insights and help smaller nonprofit and government organizations expedite their data transfer and automation processes.”
In April 2022, he launched his own data consulting business “Data for JustUS,” seeking to work with nonprofits and government institutions to drive results for socially, politically, and economically marginalized communities.
One organization he currently works with is the national nonprofit Kids and Cars Safety (KACS). He conducts research for the organization by pulling data from sources like news reports, law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, research papers, and blogs to help assess the magnitude of these dangers as well as advocate to prevent them. The organization is using this data to push forward legislation that aims to improve the safety of children and pets in cars.
“My goal is to use data to close the justice gap for marginalized communities across issue areas of the criminal legal and justice system,” Mercer explained. He believes “Data scientists’ responsibility in society is to leverage data to challenge the status quo. [They] must balance using their technical skill sets and their moral compasses to assist groups that often cannot speak for themselves.”
Mercer wanted to continue to improve his technical data skills to enact the change he wanted to see. After bouncing the idea of getting a master’s in business administration around, he eventually turned to the I School, hoping to continue exploring the roles that data science could play in helping marginalized groups.
He officially enrolled in January 2023 and hasn’t looked back. He is certain that his choice will ultimately benefit the marginalized communities and make justice a viable reality for all.