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This Black History Month, we wanted to celebrate the Black data scientists who have shaped the world of smart mobility.
While we recognize the influence of scientists in different fields – like modern medicine trailblazer Mary Seacole, Manhattan Project researcher Carolyn Parker, and self-taught astronomer Benjamin Banneker – it’s the great minds in data science that ultimately paved the way for Wejo. Below are just five individuals who helped make us who we are today.
1. W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was a writer, teacher, socialist and activist. He was a champion of using data to solve social issues for the Black community, and his writing went on to become required reading in African American studies.
Du Bois initially went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a school for Black students. He attended Harvard after graduation, and was the first Black American to earn a PhD there. Du Bois then took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he published a study of the city’s Seventh Ward. This was the first example of a statistical work being used for psychological purposes. He continued with his research until eventually writing The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of sociological essays examining the Black experience in America.
It was during this time that Du Bois became one of the founding members of the NAACP after challenging Booker T. Washington’s view that Southern Black individuals should compromise basic rights in exchange for education and legal justice. He became the editor of the organization’s monthly magazine, where he would condemn extrajudicial killings, promote unionized labor, and voice support for women’s suffrage.
2. Gladys West
Gladys West was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. At her school, those at the top of the class were offered a scholarship to the local university. She secured her place and was advised by her teachers to major in either science or math. She took math and, instead of using her degree to teach like many of her female peers, went on to work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in her home state. At the time, there were just three other Black people working alongside her.
West’s role was to collect and process data from satellites, using it to help determine their exact location. This information was then used to develop the GPS technology we know today. She continued to work as a mathematician at the naval base until she was recommended as a project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.
After retiring in 1998, West wanted to return to education and work towards a PhD. Despite suffering a stroke, she did indeed get her doctorate, and was rightly acknowledged for her contribution to modern technology in 2017.
3. Katherine Johnson
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Johnson was quickly recognized for her curiosity and skill with numbers. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, a historically Black institution, and at 18 had enrolled there to prove herself as a keen mathematician.
Johnson went on to graduate with the highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching a Black public school in Virginia. She largely remained in teaching until 1952, when a relative told her about the all-Black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory (which would later become NASA). Her role would see her analyzing the data from flight tests and plane crashes.
When the Soviets launched Sputnik five years later, Johnson became fundamental to the success of US spaceflight, performing trajectory analysis for America’s first human voyage and checking the orbital equations of John Glenn’s mission in 1962. Reportedly the astronauts were wary to proceed unless they heard Johnson validate the figures.
4. David Blackwell
Just a few years after Katherine Johnson leveraged her skill for math to safeguard spaceflight, David Blackwell was also recognized for his mathematical ability by being elected to the National Academy of Sciences as its first Black member. Born in Illinois in 1919, Blackwell also showed a talent for math at a young age but was stalled professionally by the prejudices and racist behaviors of the time.
With limited options, Blackwell’s first foray into academia was graduate studies in the Illinois Mathematics program. At 22, he completed a doctoral thesis in the theory of Markov chains, a key influence for his later work within the Department of Mathematics at Howard University. During this time, his contributions ranged over measure theory, renewal theory, sequential analysis, game theory and decision theory. One significant finding was the Rao-Blackwell theorem, an improvement scheme in estimation. He also contributed to what we now know as machine learning.
In 1952, Blackwell was finally rewarded with a role befitting his abilities as he became a professor at the University of California’s newly formed Department of Statistics. While continuing to contribute to probability theory and statistics, Blackwell turned his attention more fully to game theory and information theory. In 1967, Blackwell was able to tie game theory and formal logic together, specifically showing how games could be used to define classes of sets studied by logicians.
5. Mark Dean
Born in 1957 in Tennessee, Dean attended an integrated school where he was recognized for his intellect. After building a tractor from scratch with his father, it was no surprise that he would go on to study electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee. Soon after, he went to work at IBM as chief engineer on their personal computer project, which he did alongside studying for his M.S. degree from Florida Atlantic University.
At the time, the PC was starting to be shifted towards consumers. The first IBM model was released in 1981, and Dean’s contributions were to the PS/2 Models 70 and 80, the Color Graphic Adapter, and the internal architecture that allows PCs to use peripheral high-speed devices such as a mouse, keyboard or scanner. Three of the nine patents on IBM’s original PC are registered to Dean, illustrating his influence and cementing him as one of the most important figures in the 20th century.
Dean returned to school to earn his PhD in 1992, this time at Stanford. Shortly after, he was made an IBM Fellow, the company’s highest honor. Just two years after that, he was appointed vice president and inducted into the National Investor’s Hall of Fame. But these achievements didn’t slow Dean down, as in 1999 he would direct the development of the world’s first gigahertz, capable of processing one billion calculations per second.
It’s now a significantly different world to the one these pioneers pushed through to reach such astounding accomplishments. But there’s still work to be done. Hopefully by acknowledging the past we can encourage more Black talent to pursue careers in data analytics and mathematics.
If there are any individuals or initiatives you’d like to give a mention to, please let us know over on our LinkedIn or Twitter. There, you’ll also find updates on the future of smart mobility and connected vehicle data.