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WORLD FOCUS: International ‘Shark Tank’ competition

August 18, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

The audience at the packed Commonwealth Auditorium at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the Student Research Shark Tank competition took place, was primed for an exciting experience.

Seven teams of super-talented students were pitching their policy-relevant

international research proposals, competing for up to $20,000 in funding.

A panel of distinguished judges included Ambassador Thomas Shannon Jr., under secretary of state for political affairs; Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist of NASA; Thomas Bennedetti, co-founder and partner at Blue Heron Capital; and Alena Stern, senior program manager of AidData at W&M. They were listening to the presentation by the students and questioned them about the practical application of their proposals.

The cutting-edge student projects ranged from "Why Microfinance Needs Machine Learning" to "Protecting Ethnic Minority Identities in Majority Homogenous Countries" to "Indexing Taxation."

The "Indexing Taxation: A Measurement Index of Tax Capacity in Over 190 Countries" that was presented by George Moss and Caroline Nutter won $5,000 in funding.

"Our project is the creation of a tax capacity index that will be used by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in the public finance world. The index will be a strong tool to use as a benchmarking for domestic resource mobilization - foundational aspect of development," Moss and Nutter said.

Another winner was the proposal by Sami Tewolde and Lincoln Zaleski, "Tracking Targets: Identifying Ethnic Minority Violence." They were awarded $8,340.

"As a result of systematic oppression perpetrated by ethnic majorities and governments, many ethic minorities turn to violence, such as the Chechens in Russia or Uyghurs in China," Tewolde and Zaleski said. "In both academic and NGO communities, there is significant gap in the understanding of geopolitical implications of minority relations, especially with regards to ethnic violence. ... We propose to plot acts of violence on a map, or 'geocode' violent acts, both committed against and perpetrated by ethnic minorities in order to create a tool for users to analyze. This genocoded map will effectively harmonize this data to allow users to clearly see clusters of both categories of violence - a crucial step for agents of change toward ending ethnic conflict."

The third winner of the Shark Tank competition was the team of Michael Giovanniello and Anatoly Osgood. Their subject was "Group-Identity Messaging and Support for Environmental Development Projects." Their project was funded with an award of $6,660.

Their concept note states: "In 2016, the international community directed $34 billion to environmental projects. In order to adequately address challenges posed by environmental changes, optimizing this investment is crucial. ... Development efforts are hindered by an inability to convey the impact and urgency of the situation to target communities. Utilizing methodologies developed to understand how political identity impacts and individual's internalization of climate change knowledge in the developed world, we will examine efforts more relevant in the minds of target communities."

I asked professor Michael Tierney, director of the college's Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, of the Shark Tank competition, what he sees as the significance of the competition.

"ITPIR projects have a long history of supporting student research on their own ideas, and also in helping students to develop ideas so they can be scaled up and externally funded," he said. "Providing students with time and mentorship, they develop their own ideas and those ideas can help shape academic disciplines and policy debates.

Tierney noted that undergraduate Austin Strange developed a methodology for tracking under-reported financial flows from China. The resulting dataset has been used in more than 100 academic papers.

"William & Mary students never cease to amaze me," Tierney said. "They present like polished professionals even though most of them are not yet 20 years old. I am glad I attended William & Mary 30 years ago, as I don't think I would be admitted today."

Tierney failed, however, to mention that in 2012, the W&M became the recipient of a $25 million grant, the single largest financial award the college has ever received. It was for the AidData project, under Tierney direction, that tracked $5.5 trillion in development investments, worldwide.

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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