Alumni, Research

Economics honours graduate finds meaning (and a future) in data

August 26, 2020

Shortly after graduating from Simon Fraser University (SFU) earlier this year, economics honours student Hamza Abdelrahman moved to Ohio where he is starting a new career as a research analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

He initially planned on furthering his education with the master's program at SFU's Department of Economics and didn't think to apply for the position. But upon the advisor's encouragement, Abdelrahman took the plunge and the rest was history. 

Abdelrahman believes the key factor in him securing the position was due to his expertise in data analysis which he sees as his strongest asset as a young economist. Most of his job interviews revolved around his quantitative skills and employers were particularly interested in his honours thesis project and work as a research assistant (RA). 

Data analysis is more important than ever in our world. It is not only being able to write and run code; it is also about seeing large and complex datasets and knowing how to approach them and what to do.

In his honours thesis, Abdelrahman examined the causal effect that the disbursement of social assistance payments has on drug-related crimes and alcohol sales in Vancouver. Using the skills he learned from his economics courses and work as a research assistant, Abdelrahman analyzed the Vancouver Police Department's records tracking all 911 calls made in the city, and the daily sales records of all BC Liquor Stores in Vancouver. 

"I have always been interested in how government policies and programs affect the well-being of its citizens," explains Abdelrahman. "My particular interest in welfare and substance use came from my RA work with assistant professor Kevin Schnepel as he explored welfare and crime in Vancouver."

Abdelrahman's research found that on average, the disbursement of welfare payments (commonly referred to as Welfare Wednesday) is associated with over 40% and 11% in daily drug-related crimes and alcohol sales respectively, compared to two weeks prior to payment (i.e. middle of the payment cycle).

As Abdelrahman reflects on his own experiences in the job market and at the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent to him that data will play an increasingly pivotal role in the future of work. 

"Think about how we learned about the spread of the virus through graphs, comparative statistics, and projection models," says Abdelrahman. "Everything we see in the news and government reports about the virus required both data and data analysts who know how to use this information to educate the public and reach important findings."

With the launch of the new Social Data Analytics (SDA) minor program, Abdelrahman sees this as an opportunity for students to equip themselves with the skills to pave their own path in the data analytics field. 

Students in this interdisciplinary minor program will not only gain a foundation in statistical and computational methods, they will also learn how to effectively and ethically navigate, analyze and communicate big data in the social science context.

This is the value of the SDA minor in my opinion—In a world economy where data is the most valuable commodity, knowing how to manipulate and analyze data and draw valuable insights from it will only become more important in the future.