MSI profile: Saskia DeVries

Saskia DeVries

Saskia DeVries: Power to the people by bridging information gaps in public policy

Saskia DeVries, a dual master’s student in Information and public policy, joined U-M after working as a statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Programs and spending a year volunteering with organizations that address poverty alleviation and women’s empowerment.

Saskia graduated from Brown University with a concentration in sociology and applied math. For the next five years, she worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, traveling abroad to consult with census organizations in countries including India, Nepal, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, and Armenia.

It was during this time that Saskia became interested in data visualization and how experts were communicating data.

“There seems to be a gap between how people are taught to communicate information and how we actually absorb that information,” she says. “A lot of the census data are used by policy makers, but the analyses get wrapped up in technical reports. I wanted to create more user-friendly products so that the big questions could be answered quickly. Someone could look at a graph and understand what the big takeaway should be, rather than digging through a lot of tables.”

She realized that she wanted to become more involved in the policy making process. “I wanted to apply the information to make changes and find ways to communicate information that makes it actionable.”

After leaving the Census Bureau, Saskia spent a year volunteering for various organizations around Washington D.C. She worked with LIFT, a poverty alleviation organization, to assist low-income community members in setting goals for employment, housing and education. At LIFT, she had her first real exposure to the “digital divide,” noticing that many people experienced barriers when attempting to access information or apply for jobs online.

She also volunteered with FEMEX (short for the “female experience”), where she facilitated a 16-week seminar on topics ranging from anatomy, sex and gender, to relationships, motherhood and women’s experiences in the workplace.

In the fall of 2015, Saskia began a three-year dual master’s program with the U-M School of Information and the Ford School of Public Policy. She feels her three-year program will give her an additional summer to explore internship opportunities at various levels of government.

“My background is federal, and through that international, but I’m excited to try state or local government to see what it’s like and how the challenges are different,” Saskia says. “I think state and local areas have more flexibility to try creative solutions as long as they are appropriate for the community. Although not everything scales up, it’s great to be on the ground level and see people try new things, and if they are successful there are lessons that can be adapted from that.”

“The University of Michigan stood out to me because of its emphasis on service,” Saskia explains. “I think UMSI does a great job with the Engagement Center, exposing students to all the different ways they can have impact with their work.”

“I also like that the SI program has its roots in library science because the idea of access and social justice really comes through in the curriculum,” Saskia says. “We’re learning the skills and tools to reach people who might be left out otherwise – it’s really important to design for those groups.”