Learning the Language of Technology Students like Rocio Perez MPP '23 can now earn a certificate to show they understand the power of programming in policy analysis

By Stan Paul

The second cohort of alumni to earn a new certificate from UCLA Luskin entered the workforce in June with proof of their technical capabilities.

Although quantitative and qualitative research have long been part of a graduate education at the Luskin School, the Data Analytics Certificate recognizes students who focus on techniques and resources related to quantitative data analytics with the aid of powerful programming languages such as Python and R.

“Data can change hearts and minds,” said Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, the professor of public policy and political science who started the program and serves as faculty lead. His own research and teaching focus on subnational conflict, statistics and advanced data analysis, including “big data.”

The certificate program has two benefits, Steinert-Threlkeld said, “and I think they’re equally important.” One signals to employers that a graduate has the ability to acquire, process, analyze and convey different data sets in general. The second benefit comes primarily from the program’s competency product requirement, which can be completed through class projects, a capstone project with a quantitative aspect, or doing work or an internship that involves using these programming tools.

Before coming to UCLA Luskin, Rocio Perez MPP ’23 had reached a point in her career where she couldn’t assist her supervisor with technical matters in the way she wanted.

“It felt like a missed opportunity. Had I had those skills, I would have been able to jump in and help my boss with analyzing data,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel that way anymore.”

Perez had noticed the power of mixed-methods research, and that led her to pursue graduate study and a career at the intersection of immigration and health.

“I wanted to get these quantitative skillsets because I knew how useful they would be,” she said.

As a graduate student, Perez also was a policy fellow for the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute (LPPI). She found herself creating data visualizations for LPPI even as she was learning about them in a statistics class.

Not coming from a STEM background, Perez was intimidated at first, but she persevered. “It really helped to put in practice what I was learning in class.”

Not only do students like Perez complete a minimum of three data-focused courses, they have to provide a work product that demonstrates their ability at a higher level. To receive competency product credit, the work must involve the use of
code and demonstrate advanced skills such as — but not limited to — geospatial analysis, machine learning, natural language processing, network analysis, regression analysis, structural equation modeling or visualization. 

The Data Analytics certificate’s areas of emphasis are:

  • Spatial Analysis, which includes courses on geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping;
  • Data Science, using programs such as R;
  • Advanced Methods, statistics courses with a strong programming component;
  • Program Evaluation, tools and survey methods courses with
    a technological focus;
  • Technology Policy and Ethics, courses that focus on data, technology and its use in policymaking and governing.

Most Master of Public Policy students come in with little or no programming experience, and a sizable number of them want to acquire it in graduate school, Steinert-Threlkeld said. “I think the certificate is becoming more attractive at the application stage, but it’s rare that a student comes in being good at R or Python.”

Steinert-Threlkeld also spoke about how these additional skills fit into the policy arena and how they will be relevant for the School’s alumni when launching into careers.

“The demand for these skills is placed on the people who are doing other jobs in the organization; it’s rare for a policy organization to have a full-time data analytics person, whether we’re talking about Capitol Hill or Sacramento,” he explained. “So, in the policy world, the data analysis is an additional skill set as opposed to the primary one.”

Following graduation, Perez landed a position as a health policy analyst with the nonpartisan UnidosUS, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that serves as the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.

“It was very intentional, pursuing this,” Perez said. “Employers really look for concrete projects and examples that you’ve taken part in,” and the certificate provides that proof. “It’s like a cherry on the top.”

Steinert-Threlkeld on Twitter, Algorithms and Transparency

An Atlantic article on Twitter’s decision to publicly share part of the source code that determines which posts are prioritized in a feed cited Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy and an authority on social media data. The glimpse at the algorithm revealed technical approaches that are “pretty standard these days,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. Twitter CEO Elon Musk has invited developers and the general public to suggest changes, and Steinert-Threlkeld noted that the company may be the biggest beneficiary of the decision to pull back the curtain on part of the code. “If bugs are discovered or improvements to the algorithms are suggested and accepted, Twitter will have found a way to replace the thousands of staff who left or were fired,” he said.


Steinert-Threlkeld on Chinese Censorship of COVID Frustrations

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Al Jazeera about the Chinese government’s censorship of Shanghai residents’ expressions of frustration over an extended COVID-19 lockdown. “Shanghainese must realize that other countries have adopted looser approaches to COVID, especially in 2022, and probably feel there are less severe policy options available,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. Millions of people were confined to their homes in April as part of China’s “zero COVID” strategy in response to the Omicron outbreak, an approach reminiscent of the Wuhan lockdown in 2020. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has clamped down on social media posts that challenged the harsh lockdown. “The primary goal of CCP censorship is to prevent large-scale collective action,” Steinert-Threlkeld explained. “The censoring is counterproductive if one thinks the goal is to prevent disgruntlement about the lockdown from spreading, but it is productive if it prevents upset individuals from coordinating action outside of their homes.”

Steinert-Threlkeld on Russia’s Disinformation Campaign

In an interview with Business Insider, Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld discussed the state of misinformation in Russia. He explained that the Russian disinformation campaign works by pushing out a large amount of misinformation, some of which contains small amounts of truth. “When you control the information that people see, you control their willingness to act in certain political directions,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “So if people learned that a train station was bombed by Ukraine by neo-Nazis as opposed to Russian military forces, then the soldier deaths that Russians will eventually learn about is justified, right? Because you’re not the aggressor, you’re the defender.” Western leaders have urged Russian citizens to access independent and verified news about the war. But Steinert-Threlkeld estimated that only about 10% of Russia’s population currently has access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, and those who do have access aren’t necessarily protected from having their location revealed.

Circumvention of Censorship in China Has Increased During COVID-19 Pandemic People who broke through firewalls to seek health information also gained access to long-banned political content, study finds

By Mary Braswell

A study co-authored by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs shows that more people in China circumvented censorship restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, opening a gateway to a trove of sensitive and long-hidden information.

Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research identifies a spike in China-based activity on Twitter and Wikipedia, two platforms long banned by the government in Beijing.

The authors analyzed changes in the number of followers of popular accounts and traffic to certain Wikipedia pages to determine that, in addition to seeking news and information about the pandemic, users found sensitive information about China’s politics, history and human rights record.

During a crisis, the search for information increases under any form of governance, but leaders who use censorship as a tool to suppress dissent face heightened risks, said Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy.

In China, the search for COVID-19-related information motivated individuals to find ways to skirt government-imposed regulations and technologies that block internet use. As a result, they gained access to censored material that government leaders perceive as damaging, he said.

“If I were one of those leaders I would find this alarming because it’s something that I can’t control.”

Researchers used Twitter to examine a sample of Chinese-language accounts whose self-reported locations are in mainland China, as well as an app-tracking service. They identified several trends, including:

  • an uptick in the number of people accessing technologies that would enable them to jump the Great Firewall, China’s network of restrictions on internet access;
  • Facebook becoming the 250th most downloaded app in China, up from the 600th, and Twitter becoming the 200th most downloaded app, up from the 575th, according to estimates;
  • a 10% long-term increase in the number of accounts from China using Twitter;
  • a greater than expected growth in followers — compared to users in Hong Kong, which was not under lockdown at the time — for accounts that tweet in Chinese, including international news agencies (31%), citizen journalists (42%), activists (28%) and pornography feeds that are generally banned in China (8%); and
  • increased viewership of Chinese-language Wikipedia pages on sensitive topics such as artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The authors also uncovered nuances in Twitter usage. Their analysis of the content of the tweets alone suggested no effect — positive or negative — of the COVID-19 crisis. Digging deeper, however, they found that users who post only innocuous, nonpolitical tweets might still follow foreign news media, pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong or Taiwan, Chinese citizen-journalists or other banned Twitter accounts.

“As far as we can tell, the Chinese government has been relying on what people say to monitor the population,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “But we show in this paper that people also reveal their sentiments by who they follow.”

The paper’s other authors are Keng-Chi Chang and Margaret E. Roberts of UC San Diego and William R. Hobbs of Cornell University.

The researchers note in the paper that Beijing’s crackdown on citizens who comment on banned platforms has become increasingly repressive over the last several years.

“While the results here do not link the COVID-19 crisis gateway effect to the political fortunes of the Chinese government, they do suggest that a country with a highly censored environment sees distinctive and wide-ranging increases in information access during crisis,” they conclude.

Taking Data-Driven Policy Into the Future

The trajectory of modern society increasingly deploys data to address equity issues around such diverse topics as housing evictions, air quality, or criminal justice reform.

Learn how.

Presenting UCLA’s first conference on Data-Informed Governance (DIG)

July 7, 2021

Online, starting at 8 a.m. PDT


Watch three panel discussions featuring experts and peers from the public, private, and civic sectors.

Exchange innovative, actionable approaches to real-world policy issues.

Find out why it is increasingly critical for state and local governments to become technology proficient, using data to inform critical policy decisions.

Join with participants from a wide spectrum of organizations and geographies — from local nonprofits to national research institutes, small cities to regional governing bodies.


The DIG conference is a convening of people from diverse backgrounds that aims to demonstrate the potential for structured peer-to-peer learning on this subject. This cross-section of attendee profiles encourages the advancement of data-centric solutions for public policy that are accessible, scalable, and pragmatic.

DIG is made possible thanks to the support of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA, the College of Social Sciences, the LA Social Science Initiative, the Anderson School of Management, the Ziman Center for Real Estate, and Impact@Anderson.

Steinert-Threlkeld on Rise of Alt-Right Forums

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Dot.LA about the role of social media platforms leading up to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol. While some mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have made efforts to crack down on President Donald Trump’s false rhetoric, alt-right forums including Parler, Gab and theDonald.win have promoted calls for violence and rebellion. There’s been a shift away from mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook to alt-right platforms as stronger moderation policies have been implemented, Steinert-Threlkeld explained. Over the last two years especially, supporters have turned to far-right online platforms for “tactical coordination,” he added. Steinert-Threlkeld identified similarities between the use of real-time online platforms in the organization of protests in Iran in 2009 and among Trump supporters today. He also said many supporters are probably having private conversations in closed and private groups on Facebook or through encrypted messaging platforms.

Steinert-Threlkeld on Social Media Response to Kamala Harris

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Zenger News about the growing role of social media in recent election cycles. Social media engagement with stories about Joe Biden hit a high the week the Democratic presidential candidate named Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. Social media has become a more significant part of the political process than in previous election cycles, Steinert-Thelkeld explained. This increase in social media engagement makes it difficult to draw comparisons with Donald Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016. However, Steinert-Thelkeld highlighted the differences between the vice presidential candidates. “I think it’s more about the person that people are responding to as opposed to the four-year difference,” he said. “Pence is not that exciting. Pence is like the Biden now, and Kamala is like the Trump then.”

8th Annual Trivia Night Is a Battle of Bits

Super Quiz Bowl — a longstanding UCLA Luskin tradition — went virtual this year due to COVID-19, but enthusiasm remained high with nearly 250 competitors participating via home computers and cellphones in a trivia night held May 28. “From this mighty group, we had 19 faculty and staff, 110 students and 119 alumni,” said organizer Tammy Borrero, the School’s director of events. “This was our highest participation since its inception eight years ago.” Individuals and groups were able to compete simultaneously in the six-round tournament while enjoying a quick home-cooked meal or sofa snack and favorite beverage, thanks to Borrero and a team of staff and faculty who served as game hosts, co-organizers and participants. All three of the School’s graduate programs and the undergraduate Public Affairs major formed creatively named teams including PhDs in PJs, Mighty MURPs and Categorial Exemption. This year’s group prize went to a combined team of urban planners and social welfare graduate students, which evened out department standings across all years of competition, according to organizers. Plans are already underway to bring the event back under the tent next year.

Team Competition Winners

First Place: Plucky Opposers (Social Welfare and Urban Planning) Hanako Justice (SW), Julia Kulewicz (SW), Sam Speroni (UP), Arthur Sun (SW), Meagan Wang (UP)
Second Place: All Coast All Stars (Public Policy) Robert Gamboa, Brian Harris, Eric Schroer, Samuel Stalls, Sean Tan
Third Place: La Croix Taste Test (Public Policy) Adam Barsch, Jess Bendit, Rosie Brown, Dickran Jebejian, and Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld

Individual Competition Winners

First Place: Melody Wang, Urban Planning and Social Welfare
Second Place: Michael Busse, Urban Planning
Third Place: Nathaniel Singer, Undergraduate Program

Steinert-Threlkeld on Search for Facts Amid ‘Infodemic’

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld was featured in a Well and Good article about the role of social media in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dwindling trust in traditional media outlets has prompted people to turn to social media for news, making it difficult to discern credible sources from non-credible sources. The WHO has described the spread of hazardous false information as an “infodemic.” Steinert-Threlkeld commented that in countries like Iran and China, where information is censored, citizens have been turning to banned networks in search of accurate information. “Because it was clear to individuals [in China] that what they were seeing was different from what state media was saying, people very quickly downloaded VPNs [to access banned sites like Twitter], which we’ve seen in past crises as well,” he explained. “What we’ve seen in a lot of provinces, especially where Wuhan is, is a tripling in the number of users accessing Twitter once the quarantine happened.”