The RGK Center is excited to announce the addition of a new position on our team. We welcome back one of our talented graduate students to help us grow our data programs and collaborate with the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Ethan Tenison worked as a graduate research assistant for the RGK Center while taking courses for his MGPS degree at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. This spring, Ethan joins the RGK Center team in a different capacity as the Project Manager for Data Initiatives, a new position designed to provide support to the Center’s data-related projects. In his new role, Ethan will work closely with the CONNECT program, improving the process of categorizing projects and matching graduate students with nonprofits with a data management, evaluation, or reporting challenge.
“Ethan has been a part of the CONNECT program since its second cohort in the Summer of 2019 - it's honestly something special to have him join the team with so much working knowledge of the program,” said Alyssa Studer, CONNECT senior student program coordinator. “He not only brings with him an incredible amount of technical expertise to support our partner organizations with but has already cultivated so many great relationships with a lot of the organizations engaging with CONNECT regularly.”
He will also advise on other data initiatives of the Center, including projects with The LBJ School and the Texas Grants Resource Center. Ethan will work with the director for Data Initiatives at the LBJ School along with the RGK Center to help develop the LBJ School a “data hub” at the University.
Ethan has been plugged into the RGK Center in several different ways, seizing every opportunity to build his data management and evaluation skills. In the fall, he worked closely with RGK Center professor Ji Ma for an independent study course using natural language processing to analyze the sentiment of President Trump’s tweets in relation to public opinion. Ethan’s researched used state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to categorize tweets as either positive or negative and was able to show that the sentiment of his tweets closely followed public opinion polls.
In the fall, Ethan also worked on a CONNECT research project with Impact Capital, founded by RGK Center adjunct faculty John Thornborrow. Through his research with Professor Thornborrow, Ethan developed an algorithm to process and organize 990 data from the IRS, which he hopes will help other students doing research in the nonprofit sector. Though the IRS has published financial data available for public knowledge, “you need to know a programming language in order to interpret anything,” Ethan says. Presenting this data in an understandable way can not only help researchers better understand the nonprofit sector, but can also improve transparency in the sector and help donors decide where to spend their money.
In his new role as Project Manager, Ethan will advise on data-focused programming at the Center, including the CONNECT program. His experience with machine learning algorithms will help the CONNECT team improve the process of matching graduate students with nonprofits. Ethan brings to the team his own experience of working with the CONNECT program as a graduate student.
"For a lot of these projects, there’s domain-specific knowledge,” Ethan said of his new position supporting CONNECT. “There’s a lot of tools and many of them are used for very unique situations, so it’s really important to have a little bit of a background when we’re figuring out things like a scoring process [for the CONNECT program].”
Throughout his time in the CONNECT program, Ethan has worked with organizations such as United Way for Greater Austin, Todos Juntos, and Capital IDEA. Last fall, Ethan also began a project with Pionero Philanthropy, a Guatemalan Nonprofit Data Consultancy and one of CONNECT’s first international partner organizations. Ethan worked with Pionero to organize data they gathered about Guatemalan nonprofits and used GIS to develop an interactive map that can be used by potential donors to learn more about nonprofits they want to support and other nonprofits to help facilitate collaboration.
"The biggest impact on my graduate school experience has been CONNECT,” Ethan said. “The most learning and the most growth really took place in the projects that I worked on.” From technical skills like learning programs such as R and Python, to skills like survey administration and hypothesis testing, the opportunities Ethan had to work on real data projects through CONNECT supported the skills he learned in courses through the LBJ School.
“It’s so different when you’re actually doing it as part of a job, you learn so much quicker and it’s more impactful,” Ethan said of his experience with the CONNECT program. “My biggest takeaway is that you just have to keep learning.”
As much as Ethan sharpened his data skills and programming knowledge while working on CONNECT projects, he also credits courses through the LBJ School that helped him prepare for the myriad of data projects he worked on. Ethan recognizes the course Statistical Analysis and Learning, developed by LBJ professor Varun Rai, as one that especially helped prepare him for future data projects and exposed him to using machine algorithms. While at LBJ, he also took Open Linked Data with Ji Ma and Program Evaluation with Erin Lentz, both of which helped provide him with the technical data knowledge and skills using programs like R and Python to succeed in later projects with CONNECT.
“Ethan is going to be such a valuable addition to the RGK Center team,” said Alyssa. “Especially with regard to helping the CONNECT program increase its capacity to work with even more organizations in an even more meaningful way.”