On Friday, March 15, faculty, students and researchers affiliated with the AidData project gathered in a room in Blow Memorial Hall. There, they enjoyed Indian food and a presentation from Ben Arancibia of William & Mary's AidData partner Development Gateway. Over naan, curry and casual conversation, attendees learned how to use AidData tools and technology to build maps that display foreign aid flows.
Among those affiliated withAidData, lunches like these have become a weekly ritual.
AidData is led by a team of project managers, faculty, and postgraduate researchers from William &Mary, Brigham Young University and Development Gateway. Recognized as the largest public access database on project-level development finance in the world, AidData's affiliates include specialists in development policy and practice, political science, economics, public policy, statistics, environmental science, information technology and geospatial information sciences. At William & Mary, the undergraduate team alone is comprised of more than 40 students.
For a new student researcher, this can all seem a bit daunting.
Lucas Leblanc '15, anAidData intern, has been working on the project since fall 2012. Primarily, he is researching French-language media in West Africa to find information about aid projects in the region. Like Leblanc, most interns focus on a relatively small piece of the project's overall research program.
"I can definitely see the global vision for AidData," he said, "but it's not always easy to see when you are concentrating on one specific region."
AidData lunch events help student researchers see this larger vision, putting their own work in context. By bringing together the William & Mary branch of the project and showcasing research being undertaken with data produced by the team, student researchers learn where their work fits and how they might provide better information to meet the project's needs.
Additionally, Leblanc sees these lunches as a good way to foster a team atmosphere.
"It's a fast-paced organization growing really rapidly, and it sometimes seems like a lot a tonce," he said. "It feels like the organization is really making an effort toreach out to the undergraduate researchers."
Doug Nicholson '12, post-baccalaureate fellow for AidData, helps coordinate these events as part of a larger effort to mentor and actively involve undergraduates in the research process. He says that these casual meetings make a big impact.
AidData lunches are "a good place to talk in an interdisciplinary setting," Nicholson said. "Students of various majors bring different strategies and mind sets to development problems."
These events are meant to encourage students to share new ideas and enrich their research experience by allowing them a forum to present their work or draw from their experience to formulate questions for other students and faculty.
"This is not a traditional classroom setting," Nicholson said. "It offers a chance to get outside theIvory Tower of academia."
But sometimes, the Ivory Tower is invited in. On March 22, Scott Ickes, professor of international nutrition and epidemiology in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences,presented his project with undergraduate researchers Alison Roberts '15 and Emily Mahoney '15. Their research used district-level AidData information onMalawi to investigate whether foreign aid allocation had an impact on childhood malnutrition indicators taken from Demographic and Health Survey datasets.
Over pizza, faculty, interns, project managers and research assistants raised questions about the project's methodology, findings and future. Ickes commented that the feedback from the presentation "raised many methodological questions that weconsidered, and others—like the weighting of project relevance—that we haven't yet."
Presentations like Ickes's help AidData researchers and interns understand the impact their work has on a multitude of disciplines, raising questions about how the data they are collecting may be used more effectively in academic research. They may also give these students some ideas for their own work.
Leblanc says that he hopes to use some of the methodology he has encountered at AidData lunches in his own research. He is currently proposing a study of Catalan politics in Spain andFrance that would use GIS mapping software to track political sentiment. He credits AidData outreach, like the weekly lunch events, for making him consider the idea.
Nicholson remembers when AidData lunches were actually part of a one-credit course that undergraduate researchers were required to attend. Now, he says, they function on a voluntary basis, though they always attract a strong showing.
Often, students will lead discussions of their own research projects. In the past, they have presented work based on topics relevant to AidData, including randomized control variable design and preventative health projects. Frequently, the work that students present is posted on AidData's blog, The First Tranche, which has a rapidly expanding readership in the development policy community.
Since its inception, student researchers have played a critical role in AidData's success, helping to build an extensive database, develop new data collection methods, conduct fieldwork and publish research. AidData lunches give these students a chance to come together to eat, share and collaborate with others who share their interest in international development.
"Many students say this is the best part of the AidData experience," said Nicholson.