Data Science as Nation-Building: A Look at the Life and Research of Erika Legara


Legara’s early impact


Data science is one of the most talked about fields in the Philippines, largely because the profession is so in-demand. Awash in data in the new digital economy, organizations must compete fiercely for the data scientists who can help make sense of all this information. Data science professionals can command high salaries, great benefits, and other perks, since they have their choice of employer. 

But it’s important to view data science from more than just the lens of supply-and-demand, or even professional development. The field can genuinely be an avenue for nation-building. Such is the philosophy of Erika Fille Lagara, now the academic program director of the Master in Science in Data Science Program at the Asian Institute of Management. It’s important to note that Legara held this view long before the profession even became popular. As an undergraduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Legara studied the dynamics of multilevel marketing for her thesis. She was a physics major, but already she loved looking for patterns in data, especially if it could help Filipinos. 

Through a simulation powered by computational social science, Legara proved that pyramid-type MLM schemes emerging in the Philippines were inherently unsustainable. If a group of people from the same social circle join a MLM scheme, they will have no one else to recruit from their group, and they’ll also eventually be left with no other friends, family, or acquaintances to tap for their downline. The initial participants may be stuck with the unsold product and the financial problems that come from having their capital trapped in inventory. 

Though MLM schemes are widely panned now - their recruiting refrain, “open minded ka ba,” has become something of a meme - Legara’s work was pioneering back then. She was one of the first to point out the red flags in MLM schemes, and she did so in the systematic way sure to convince other stakeholders, rather than on opinion alone. Using data science in service of the nation would characterize all of Legara’s academic and professional work.

 

Stewarding data science in the Philippines 


Perhaps the greatest evidence that Legara truly believes in her profession’s ability to contribute nation-building came - ironically enough - when she was not even in the Philippines. After working for five years at Instrumentation Physics Laboratory (IPL) at UP Diliman, she was recruited to work in Singapore on their bid to become a smart nation. In 2016, Legara was invited back by Dr. Jikyeong Kang of the Asian Institute of Management to start a data science program there.

The decision was fraught with difficulty. Legara had a thriving career in one of the most important economic hubs in Asia, working with equally brilliant scientists. After carefully weighing her options, Legara voted with her feet: She decided to move back to the Philippines because she felt data science could truly impact the nation’s future. The choice would also multiply her reach: Rather than rely solely on her own contributions as a data scientist, or even a larger team, she now had the capacity to educate many more Filipinos, each of whom could leverage the knowledge to improve life in the Philippines.

This impact was documented in a story on Legara’s research and life published in Fearless Filipinas: 12 Filipinos Who Dared to Be Different. According to co-author Monica Padillo, the first cohort at the Asian Institute of Management’s Master in Science in Data Science Program were able to apply data science and artificial intelligence in seven out of the top 10 key employment generating (KEG) sectors identified by the Department of Labor and Employment. 

“Through their research and experiments, the students were able to use data to automatically classify convenience store products, predict flight delays, and identify healthy and sick swine for livestock management. The other projects focused on solutions for banking and finance, hotel restaurant and tourism, health and wellness, and information technology and business process management―all of which are involved in the daily lives of Filipinos today,” wrote Padillo.

Legara was notably only one of two scientists featured in the book, the other being Dr. Reina Reyes, the PhD from Princeton University known for confirming Einstein’s theory of relativity. According to Kyle Nate, the deputy editorial publisher of Fearless Fiipinas, Legara was precisely chosen because of her emphasis on the social impact of the field. 

“Data science has of course become one of the most in-demand professions in the Philippines and around the world. What separates Dr. Legara was her ability to cut through the popularity to distill its raison d'etre for both her students and the general public: Because data science can help tens of millions of Filipinos across every aspect of day-to-day life,” said Nate.