Black History & Data Today


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Black History Month takes place every year during the month of February. It was originally created to focus attention on the contributions of African Americans to the United States and, it’s now also a moment to honor all black people from all periods of history. In this blog, the Datasphere Initiative takes a look at five black professionals who have played a key role in the history of data science and data governance. As investors and pioneers their work has impacted how we use data today. 

Roy Clay Sr.

A computer programmer and scientist, Roy Clay Sr. began coding using Fortran at the Control Data Corporation in 1963. Fortran is a general-purpose, imperative programming language that is especially suited to numeric computation and scientific computing. Hewlett Packard (HP) recruited him to lead their computer development business and he helped bring the original HP computer (the 2116A) to market in 1966. In the 1970s, Clay started his own company, Rod-L Electronics, where he invented the first electronic equipment safety testing device. 

Learn more about Roy Clay Sr. and his work here

Alan Emtage

Online search is available and used in almost every aspect of our online lives: on the internet, and on our phones. While working at McGill University to find software for students and faculty members, Emtage wrote a piece of code that would do the searching for him and named his FTP search engine “ARCHIE” (after “archive”, without the “v”.) This created the foundations for the search engines we use today.

Learn more about Alan Emtage and his work here

Valerie Thomas

Data scientists often use satellite imagery to answer questions about land use, atmospheric conditions, and ocean life among others to monitor the impacts of climate change. One of the pioneers in this use of data was Valerie Thomas, who was instrumental in developing the processing of data from the Landsat satellite to usable forms for scientists to undertake research into farming practices. Thomas invented the technology that led to the creation of 3-D imaging.

Learn more about Valerie Thomas and her work here

John Henry Thompson

As a chief scientist at Macromedia™, John Henry Thompson developed several products, many of them based on his most famous invention, Lingo programming: a scripting language that helps render visuals in computer programs. Lingo is now used with many programs that have interactive simulations with graphics, animation, sound, and video. It has also been used to create programs that now are prevalent in video games, web design, animation, and graphics.

Learn more about John Henry Thompson and his work here

Gladys West

In her published paper titled “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter” (1986), Dr. Gladys West documented the calculations for making position identification with high accuracy using data collected from satellites. Her work was crucial in the GPS technology we see on phones and social media today.

Learn more about Dr. Gladys West and her work here

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and just a handful of examples, the Datasphere Initiative encourages readers to continue learning and sharing examples of more black people who have evolved and pioneered how we use data now and will in the future.

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