PDEL: Qualcomm Institute’s 'Gateway to the Social Sciences'

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 15, 2015 — The world-class social science research that goes on at the University of California, San Diego and the technology innovation that takes place at the university’s Qualcomm Institute (QI) might seem, at first glance, completely unrelated.  But the two are converging with the emergence of the UC San Diego groundbreaking Policy Design and Evaluation Lab (PDEL).

Jennifer Burney and Joshua Graff Zivin
Jennifer Burney and Joshua Graff Zivin at the PDEL Innovation Research Workshop. 

Launched in early 2013, PDEL is a new organization at UC San Diego that enables interdisciplinary field research on public policy, quantitative political science and development economics, but with a technology focus.  Affiliates of QI provide the necessary technological expertise.

“PDEL is QI’s gateway to the social sciences,” said International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) Professor Craig McIntosh, who directs PDEL along with Economics Professors Eli Berman and Gordon Hanson.  QI Director Ramesh Rao added that QI is partnering with PDEL “to develop new tools that can nimbly extract information, help with collaborative analysis and assess interventions on a societal scale.”

Such collaborations were elaborated on last month at a PDEL Innovation Research Workshop at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, where two PDEL members spoke about their work.  Joshua Graff Zivin and Jennifer Burney, both UC San Diego faculty members, discussed recent insights into the pervasive impacts of air pollution on human health, labor productivity and agricultural yields at this biannual event.

Burney is an environmental scientist, and since 2012, an assistant professor at IR/PS.  Some of her current work focuses on climate change adaptation and the effects of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants on the agriculture sector, farmers’ crop yields and food and nutrition security in the developing world.  In November she published an article, “Recent climate and air pollution impacts on Indian agriculture” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was co-authored by Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist and QI affiliate Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who is an expert in these fields.

Zivin, an IR/PS and Department of Economics professor, works on complementary research on the impacts of health interventions in developing countries and on the economics of innovation.  Zivin and Burney have overlapping research agendas and have collaborated in the past, making them a natural pair of speakers for the workshop organized by PDEL.

Programmers and research scientists at QI have developed software tools for various PDEL projects.  For example, in one PDEL program, QI Principal Development Engineer Ganz Chockalingham designed a mobile money app named Prêt-à-Payer, which means ‘ready to pay,’ for a project with Burney and PDEL Affiliate and Political Science Professor Claire Adida this summer.  The app makes it possible for family members or philanthropists to send tuition money directly to secondary schools in the country.  In addition to providing programming staff to make this user-friendly app, QI helped to sponsor a trip to Benin in June to discuss partnerships with top mobile phone companies and local stakeholders there.

A secondary school in Benin
Programmers and research scientists at QI have developed software tools for various PDEL projects, including the Prêt-à-Payer app, which makes it possible for people to send tuition money directly to secondary schools in Benin.

In another PDEL project, political science Professor Clark Gibson utilized a refined smartphone application to enable citizens in Kenya to monitor the 2013 national elections in real time using digital image collection and cloud-based computing.  Chockalingam, along with programmers Mike Chiu and Rustin Manafian, developed this new app and software, which allowed citizens to share provisional vote totals, provide pictures of the tally and report theft or denial of monitor access.  The data were posted publicly during and after the voting at polling stations. 

Furthermore, the project used a “randomized controlled trial” research design to detect and suppress electoral fraud, in which local researchers delivered letters to a sample of polling station managers announcing their intention to monitor the election and photograph the station’s final tally.  Preliminary results show that stations that received the letter and were monitored were 25 percent less likely to have suspicious digit patterns in vote counts, indicating that the project had a significant impact.

Mcintosh noted that the goal of PDEL is to use methodologies and expertise from the social sciences along with information and communication technologies developed at QI to develop empirically driven programs that help to alleviate poverty, promote health, welfare, and enhance accountability.

With a few years of pilot funds, PDEL is “spinning up a nice group of projects,” said Burney.  The lab supports research groups by providing expert staff with experience in things like grant writing and management, human subject protection applications, and international contract handling, since the researchers frequently work with other countries’ governments and nongovernmental organizations.

In addition, PDEL researchers are developing many other data analysis and statistical tools, software tools, and geographic information systems.  They are applying for grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other sources to “appify” those tools, McIntosh said, which will help with program evaluation.

PDEL is just getting started, and the lab has many goals and plans for the future.  The directors of the lab are working on a new graduate sequence and teaching tools, and are looking forward to funding students so, said Mcintosh, “they have a tailwind behind them to lead their own projects.”

Related Links

Policy Design and Evaluation Lab

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,