Moorissa Tjokro | Data Science for Sustainable Development

Tjokro is in her second semester of Columbia's three-semester data science master's program. (Photo: Chloevela Tjokro)

Moorissa Tjokro knew early on she wanted to pursue a career helping others. Leaving home at 13 to study at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city, she came to the United States on a scholarship to study at Georgia Tech. There, an internship with the UN World Food Programme in Atlanta sparked her interest in big data. In an effort to lower malnutrition rates in Zambia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, Tjokro helped build optimization models to discover where supply chains could be adjusted to distribute perishable food more efficiently.

After graduating with a B.S. in industrial engineering, she spent two years working as a data analyst for a humanitarian direct-response agency called Target Marketeam. On the side, she volunteered with the United Nations Associations of Atlanta (UNA), crunching data to retain and grow membership. To capitalize on a growing interest in sustainable development among her peers, she established a UNA subchapter for young professionals to get involved in advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition to her role as UNA's VP of membership and data operations, she  joined the board, becoming its youngest member. This past fall, she started Columbia's master’s in data science program, drawn by Columbia’s location in New York City, and the entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary learning opportunities. She recently took a few minutes to discuss her experience so far. 

In the above visualization, Tjokro and her hackathon teammates found that Manhattan's Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods (in red) had the greatest need for doctors specializing in HIV treatment.

What's been your favorite project?

My team unexpectedly won a hackathon last fall at Columbia Business School! With Aditya Garg in data science, and two management-science students, Akshit Mehta and Umair Mesiya, we built a visualization tool to identify neighborhoods with a shortage of doctors that treat common diseases like diabetes, mental disorders and HIV. The idea is that public agencies in NYC, or health providers themselves, could use this information to better match doctors and patients geographically.

And a favorite class?

Jonathan Soma’s D3-based Storytelling with Data course.  More than exploratory analysis or descriptive statistics, I got to learn new programming skills like JavaScript, jQuery, D3, HTML, CSS, XML and SVG. My favorite projects include mapping global poverty indices and happiness levels using UN and governments data, exploring the rating of sci-fi books with data from Goodreads, and comparing character traits between Marvel and DC superheroes.

How did you get interested in nonprofits and data for good?

In high school my friends and I organized service projects at orphanages and nursing homes to feed and teach underprivileged kids and those living in the Jakarta slums. I later started a nonprofit that partnered with Books for Africa and South East Asia Prayer Centers to build schools in Cambodia. I also started a UNICEF chapter on campus. One of my goals is to make real-time data accessible for all, and to bridge data gaps between rich and poor countries, and government and industry.

Countries further from the center of this radial graph had higher poverty rates, with most clustered in Africa, Tjokro found, analyzing UN data for a data-visualization class.  

How would you like use data to help the developing world?

I’m still exploring ideas, but I see big data as key to solving various sustainable-development challenges such as expanding immunizations, healthcare, and water, to the world’s poorest people. Clustering models based on population demographics can help identify geographic areas with the greatest need. Big data allows trends to come into focus. We can use real-time data from mobile-phone calls, satellite imagery, and biometric data to drive more efficient poverty-reduction strategies and decision-making.

Advice you’d share with incoming students?

Manage your time. In grad school there’s always more work than time to do it all. These six 'Fs' were essential in helping me get through my first semester. Friends: You will find people who are smarter than you. Accept this and learn from them. Faculty: If you have questions about workload, jobs, research, don’t be shy. DSI provides a network of supportive faculty and advisors. Family: Make time for a Facetime chat or weekend visit to recharge your batteries. There’s no substitute for family. Faith: A belief in God or a theory of why you are here can be a source of strength. Fitness: Exercise makes it easier to be productive by boosting the brain. Fun: Take in a Broadway show, or sunset on the Hudson, or whatever else makes you happy. It’s New York City after all.

And the best part of living in New York?

Food from every corner of the world. From Halal Guys and Jin Ramen, to Bibble Sip and Lady M, the options are endless!

Who has inspired you most in life?

My father, Ferryanto Tjokro. He probably knows more about technology than I do, and is the most generous man I know. He started his own company, PT. Borobudur Medecon, now the largest electrical-service provider in East Java and Madura. Growing up, his family was too poor to own or rent a home, so he worked odd jobs in exchange for temporary shelter. He eventually found a job as a utility-pole repairman and after receiving an electrical shock one day, decided to study electrical engineering. He later found a job at the National Electrical Company before starting his own business at 22. Despite his success, he remains humble and works closely with local orphanages for disabled children. 

— Kim Martineau

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