Friday, March 10, 2017
By Peyman Pejman

A non-profit organization has embarked on a data-centric project, believed to be the first of its kind among any minority community in the United States, to showcase the contributions of Iranian-Americans in the country.

Pirooz Parvarandeh

The Iranian-Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP), launched by an organization by the same name in California (https://ia-cp.org), intends to become a national repository of data that would show detailed information ranging from the number of community members in different professions to their contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP), and their role in sectors such as technology, science, arts, culture, and healthcare.

“When you ask Iranians in America how many [Iranian-American] physicians there are, they don’t know. Prior to this, I didn’t know. If I don’t know, how will my children know? If I don’t know, how will my fellow American citizens know? How will the politicians know?” Pirooz Parvarandeh, the project founder, told Kayhan London.

“Basically, we are trying to put out the data so people know what the contribution of Iranian Americans has been. The data are going to be available to all other Iranian-American organizations and they can create narratives around it,” he added.

Parvarandeh said it would then be up to other organizations “to go to policymakers and say, ‘Look, there are 9,000 physicians of Iranian descent who are saving lives and providing services,’ or ‘there are this many companies founded by Iranian-Americans’ or ‘this many teachers rendering services.’ These numbers are important in order to make an impression on our fellow citizens and policymakers.”

The IACP, he added, is not interested in becoming an advocacy group. “It’s been our charter that we will never become a public policy advocacy group. That’s not something that we are good at. We just want to provide the data to other organizations that are well versed in public advocacy.”

The project started a year ago when Parvarandeh and a small group of collaborators built and populated a database with more than 200,000 names. By using various techniques, names that were determined to have a high probability of belonging to a person of Iranian descent were co-opted. The “scaling” was necessary, he said, because certain Iranian-sounding names are also used in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Initially, we thought we would reach out to the Iranians we knew and ask them to fill out a form and describe what they have done and what has been their contribution. We soon realized that would have been very non-scalable, open to a high degree of subjectivity, and a potential for exaggeration or understatement,” said Parvarandeh.

Instead, the organization tapped into public databases for professions such as physicians and attorneys that require participants to register with the government and provide data.

Will relying on public databases adequately account for all Iranian-Americans in the United States? What about those who are not required to register with any government agency? Parvarandeh’s answer is two-fold.

“We will acknowledge, upfront, that we are under-representing the population. The names will under-represent the population in the U.S. That’s a fact. Basically, there is no guarantee that we will capture every single Iranian-American in America. There is no guarantee to that effect,” said Parvarandeh.

He hopes that as the project becomes more known, and as people trust the intentions of those behind the project and the IACP’s inherent value, more people would suggest names to be added to the database, helping it grow organically.

The data-centric approach of the project is important for another reason.

“The issue I had in prior efforts in documenting the contribution of Iranian-Americans is that they always focused on famous people, stars of our community, and it almost became an anecdotal approach to the contribution story,” said Parvarandeh.

“There are several things that are wrong with that approach. One is that it covers a very small number of people. We will continue to cover the luminaries in our society. Someone looking at that database could say, ‘who are the rest?’ The other problem is that if we won’t have large numbers, we don’t get to see the contribution of those who are not famous,” he added.

The IACP has so far been low-key, by design.

“We are at the very beginning of our journey. We have not publicized our website. We only showed it to about a 100 people a month ago. That’s all. Now we are starting to create a presence on Facebook and other places, and hopefully …  [publicity] will encourage people to come and look at our database for content,” said Parvarandeh.

To expedite securing that trust, Parvarandeh points out to two potential concerns: security and confidentiality.

Emphasizing that the project is employing the most stringent security measures, Parvarandeh says the database does not contain any information that is not available through public databases. As for any unwanted government intrusion, he says the government has all the data on anyone who has legally immigrated into the United States.

Responding to concerns that collecting data might lead to their public use, Parvarandeh said, “We don’t publish the names, their names are kept anonymous … We are just presenting numbers. The names will never be presented to anybody.” 

Complementing the data-centric approach, the IACP has also adopted a more public posture. In collaboration with The Huffington Post, the project is subjectively reaching out to Iranian-Americans in a diverse array of professions to ask if they would want to be voluntarily interviewed. So far, the IACP has interviewed over 30 persons and the interviews are available at https://ia-cp.org/stories. “We have tried to not focus on household names. Some of our criteria are that we want to cover a diversity of professions, we want to have gender balance so we have tried to be 50-50 in our coverage.”

Lastly, the IACP has made a conscious distinction between “success,” “accomplishment,” and “contribution.” The project is not necessarily about lauding the “success” or “accomplishment” as much as documenting “contribution.”

“We are not focused on success. We are focused on contribution. Our definition of contribution is any American, whatever their profession, we don’t care. They can be a firefighter, school teacher, attorney or chief executive officer; anyone who is making a living in their profession, is making a contribution by definition because someone is willing to pay them money to do something and, therefore, it must be worth something. That is usually how GDP is calculated,” said Parvarandeh.

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