Rising Policy Talent The California Research Bureau taught 18 Cal-in-Sacramento interns how to use public data to measure and map COVID-19's impact

To start, we should explain why our team of 20 researchers and librarians at the California Research Bureau agreed to virtually host 18 interns on an ambitious research project just as the pandemic began disrupting our professional and personal lives.

As the pandemic turned Sacramento into a largely virtual environment, most legislative and state agency offices were forced to cancel their internships. In fact, the Research Bureau, which is part of the California State Library, initially thought we would have to as well. Each year we host several interns, mentoring them so that they can do what we do: research public policy, dig through virtual and physical boxes to find bill histories, analyze data, and visualize information in support of the public policy work done by staff at the Legislature and Governor's Office. We thought this might not be possible in our new virtual environment amid a public health crisis.

The California Research Bureau has offices at both the California State Library and the State Capitol.

That all changed in early May 2020, when the Cal-in Sacramento program, part of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley, asked if we could virtually host most of their undergraduate students to document COVID-19's impact across various California Assembly and Senate districts. (Click here to read the Matsui Center's version on how this virtual internship came together.)

Our Team Benefits From Hosting Interns

We were hesitant initially to try a virtual internship, times 18, but several members of our team were eager to try. And many of us felt a sense of responsibility to try because we knew how helpful internships had been to us as we started on our career paths. While quickly scaling our traditional in-the-office internship program to support 18 students working remotely required a complete reorganization of our program, we think our team benefited from the experience as much as the students did.

Teaching public policy writing and data analysis and visualization makes you better at it yourself. This group of talented undergraduates brought new ideas and new technical tools and methods that our team was able to explore.

We had no idea how much enthusiasm 18 interns would pump into our team, how much energy it would take or how rewarding it would be. Several of our team members spent evenings and weekends readying the next training lesson so interns could complete the next phase of research work. We learned to plan well, while being even more flexible, and gained or improved our own technical skills. We know that this will improve the work we do day in and day out to support public policy staff in the Capitol.

Cal-in-Sacramento interns visited Sacramento on March 13, 2020.

A Note of Thanks

Nearly two dozen staff from around the Capitol community were gracious enough to join us virtually to share their professional insights and experiences with the interns. They found time in harried schedules to provide insight into the state's efforts to combat COVID-19, and answer questions about their research or public policymaking roles. Many offered career advice or shared their own journey from college intern to legislative chief of staff. Each intern told us how much they felt they grew and learned from their virtual summer in Sacramento, and it is due in no small part to the time that so many other professionals made for them. Thank you.

Designing Three Viable Research Projects for the Interns

The students learned to use Tableau or R Shiny to present their findings, and introduced us to Adobe Spark.

To create a viable research project we could execute with interns working remotely, several members of our team suggested three slightly different approaches we could employ to provide a data snapshot of what impact COVID-19 was having over a specific time period across California communities. Each approach focused on leveraging different public data sets, tools and skills (R Shiny, Tableau, Excel) to assess COVID-19's impact or potential impact on populations deemed the most vulnerable by a number of factors.

Moving to a Virtual Internship

We did not have a lot of time to plan a virtual internship for 18, so we started with our traditional internship and training program and tried to scale it to 18 interns working remotely. Instead of training one or two interns looking over a shoulder at a computer screen, we shared our computer screen over Zoom to walk many interns on how to execute a task. We set ambitious goals for each intern and each team to reach each week. It helped that we were working with a group of very bright and engaged interns, and a staff that embraces helping others grow professionally. As the relationships and bonds grew stronger each week between interns and our staff, each side worked harder, faster and longer so as not to disappoint the other – a show of mutual respect.

Witnessing the Interns' Growth

Before the interns started working with us, we asked the Matsui Center to poll the students on their public policy and learning interests to help place the interns into one of three teams. We also gathered potential COVID-19-related public policy questions from legislative staff, and scheduled virtual updates and presentations from the interns to legislative staff. It was an indescribably prideful moment to witness interns who were too shy to ask us questions in week 1, confidently present their findings and address questions from legislative staff by week 5 of the internship.

UC Berkeley’s Social Sciences Data Laboratory assisted us in training the interns to use Tableau and Excel.

What the Interns Found and Learned

  • The coronavirus has widened financial and health inequalities in California (the students were finding data to confirm this just as other studies and news stories were starting to document this, an exciting experience for our interns).
  • Specific groups and regions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted would be hit hard by the coronavirus were, at the time of the interns’ research, very accurate.
  • The students virtually met nearly two dozen researchers and policymakers from the executives and legislative side of state government, and learned about the many paths and opportunities that await them in public service.

What the Interns Did

The interns were formed into three teams under the leadership of four senior researchers from the California Research Bureau. Below are brief descriptions of each project, and the names of the team members. We are providing links to some of the work and products the interns created for legislative staff. While all of the interns’ work was of high quality, and many of their findings were verbally shared with legislative staff, we ran out time to ready all of their initial analysis and data visualizations into final products we could publish. In the end, we built on some of the interns' unfinished work to produce memos and maps for legislative offices that requested a data snapshot of COVID-19's impact within their district or the county their constituents reside in.

Team 1:

Project description: Create an interactive dashboard in Tableau that estimates COVID-19 and unemployment prevalence by California legislative district and allows comparison to demographic, financial and health variables that have been shown to be potentially contributing to COVID-19-related health and financial risks.

Interns: Marc Castel, Eric Furth, Arpna Ghanshani, Jamie Noh. Project led by Devin Lavelle, senior researcher.

Team 1 learned to use county data to estimate what the data looked like at the state legislative district level.

Team 2:

Project description: Produce a series of fact sheets that identify the households and communities within each California legislative district that appear to be the most financially vulnerable to the economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus shutdown.

Interns: Leslie Vasquez Guzman, Ellen Harper, Josh Lewis, Haley Regan, Robson Swift. Project led by Patrick Rogers, senior researcher.

Link: https://github.com/CAStateLibrary/Cal-in-Sacramento-2020

Team 2 identified factors that could increase financial risk to the shutdown induced by COVID-19.

Team 3:

Project description: Produce case studies on selected counties to determine vulnerability of populations at the outset of the pandemic; assess disproportional effects of the pandemic on different racial groups and income groups; identify medical testing sites, access to medical equipment and efforts by K-12 school districts to mitigate disparities; evaluate infection and hospitalization rates; and assess the impact of local responses and decisions on infection and hospitalization rate. In addition create a COVID-19-related resource guide for state policymakers.

Interns: Ani Gevorkian, Medhavi Goel, Nyanga Nyandemoh, Pedro De Anda Plascencia,Tanvi Saran, Mateo Torrico, Lyndsie Vale, Kennedy Vega, Leslie Wasserman. Project led by Kellie Jean Hogue and Ngan Tran, senior researchers.