Kickoff data and society conversation zeroes in on connecting Black-owned businesses, students

By Briana Wipf

It started with a problem.

Members of the Center for Analytical Approaches to Social Innovation (CAASI), a group that seeks to use social science research to solve real-world issues, were aware that Pittsburgh is extremely segregated by race.

After the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the ensuing social concern about racial equality and appropriate policing, CAASI, the group started by Dr. Sera Linardi, decided to put its energy toward supporting efforts to fight systemic racism.

One of the products of that energy is 412Connect, a web platform that seeks to connect University of Pittsburgh students with eight local Black-owned businesses (BOB).

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, Linardi, a professor of economics and director of CAASI, and some of her colleagues presented the process of building and launching 412Connect. The meeting, held on Zoom, was the first in the University of Pittsburgh’s Year of Data and Society Conversations, a series that features speakers whose work with data can foster conversation around the societal, ethical and political implications of data.

Pitt’s Year of Data and Society is the latest “year of” initiative from the Office of the Provost, and it serves as a theme that can unite various students and disciplines. This year’s theme will look at ways data can be harnessed and the ethical implications of doing so.

412Connect uses a specific strategy to help solve problems.

“I’m going to focus a lot on how,” Linardi said during the meeting.

Lindardi and her group knew they first had to survey BOBs to find out what they needed. The survey showed that the businesses wanted to increase their web and social media following and cultivate stronger relationships with college students in Oakland.

On the other side of the equation, students who were surveyed said they wanted to support BOBs but were unsure how to identify a BOB and limited by lack of buying power and geographic distance – this is where that historic segregation comes in.  

The result is, a platform that allows students to make an account and then take part in a digital scavenger hunt. The student participant is asked questions about one of the eight participating BOBs and must go to the BOBs’ websites to get the answers. Answering questions correctly helps the student earn virtual badges and outside the classroom credits (OCC).

Students at the Pitt Honors College are required to earn OCC credits, which helps 412Connect reach its target demographic, said Ivy Chang, an undergraduate finance and economics student and the group’s communication coordinator.

Through the work mostly of volunteers, along with a few paid positions and community partners, 412Connect came into being with the principles of ethical data use in play.

For one, the group wanted to provide equal support to the participating businesses on the platform, according to Alex DiChristofano, a data science PhD student at Washington University of St. Louis. While still using an algorithm to determine how to show the businesses to users, the platform respects the user’s preferred business type.

The web application itself was programmed using Python, Django, and SQLite. The data that is collected tracks user activity, the number of completed activities, and the extent of participation, said Collin Griffin, technical project manager and a senior computer science student at Pitt.

Griffin and Tyler Olin, a Pitt alumnus of the School of Computing and Information who was hired as a user experience designer, agreed that the coding experience was shaped by the small team and quick turnaround.

Griffin called it “startup-esque” with a “design-as-you-go” attitude.

Olin noted that, with a small team, “we don’t have full organizational allowances that huge companies...might have. We had our own version of what an agile methodology would entail. We didn’t have the luxury of fully designing something and then handing it over and say, ‘Hey, code this.’”

Along with the paid and volunteer work of students, community partners were also essential to the success of 412Connect. Riverside Center for Innovation helped 412Connect find the BOBs that would participate in this launch.

“There’s a large, untapped potential base, especially around the university community and Black-owned and minority-owned businesses,” said Adam Gerard, a program support assistant at Riverside Center for Innovation.

The 412Connect team hopes to expand its platform to include other BOBs, or possibly other minority-owned businesses.

While 412Connect cannot solve Pittsburgh’s segregation, it can provide a bridge or two, even if they are virtual.


If you’d like to attend a CAASI meeting, email Follow them on Twitter @CAASIpitt.