February 23, 2023 | Spotlight

UGA Institute of Government’s James Byars Receives 2023 PSO Staff Award

UGA Institute of Government’s James Byars Receives 2023 PSO Staff Award

Writer: Mallory Lawrence

UGA Institute of Government’s ‘Mad Hatter of Data’ recognized

The University of Georgia’s Public Service and Outreach division recently awarded James Byars the 2023 PSO Staff Award.

The University of Georgia’s Public Service and Outreach division recently awarded James Byars the 2023 PSO Staff Award. Byars, who has worked at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government for eight years, currently serves as interim manager of the Institute’s data analysis and visualization unit.

During his time at the Institute, Byars has gained a reputation as the in-house data whiz. His 2021 annual population projections for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget were only 0.11% off the official census data for Georgia’s 2022 population. In addition to his work with the governor’s office, he and his department had a significant role in creating the data set that led to the creation of Georgia Degrees Pay, a web-based tool that compares enrollment, cost, and student success data for 26 of Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

In 2006, Byars earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and mathematics from Murray State University and later went on to receive a master’s degree from North Carolina State University. His experience as a first-generation college student continues to inform his work.

“Growing up, my family was on government assistance, so I realized the importance of government when I was young,” Byars said. “Whenever I think about a specific model, I think about myself and my loved ones. Even if that model helps one kid graduate, that could have been me.”

Byars began his time at the Institute as a graduate research assistant and worked his way up to data scientist before eventually being named interim manager of data analysis and visualization.

As a manager, Byars considers fairness.  “I always ask myself, how do you create things that are equitable, fair, and transparent?” he says. “I think we do a really good job on that, and we pride ourselves on that.”

Whether it’s working on a project for the Department of Family and Child Services, creating a data set on student success rates, or tinkering with app design, Byars understands the power data has in people’s lives.

He’s also acutely aware of his responsibilities as someone who works with sensitive and powerful information. He goes out of his way to respect the individuals represented within the data. 

“A metric is a double-edged sword, it can be a benchmark for accountability, but it can also be a reinforcing measure. We want to make sure what we create isn’t a weapon used to pigeon hole people into a particular path,” Byars said.

It’s this care and attention to detail that continues to get Byars noticed for excellence not just in data and technology but also in public service. Over the past five years, he has mentored undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students and says he learns from everyone he mentors and they help him stay relevant in an ever-changing field.

As for his own mentors, Byars noted the impact David Tanner, the Institute’s Associate Director of State Services and Decision Support, has had on his career.

“David Tanner is incredibly patient with me, even though at times, I can be very eccentric. He has always encouraged me to be the Mad Hatter of data,” said Byars.

James Byars has amassed an iconic sneaker collection.When not working with data, Byars enjoys spending time with his wife, playing board games with friends, doting on his two St. Bernards, and amassing an iconic sneaker collection.

Byars is humble when asked about being honored for his public service and outreach work.

“It would be naive to believe that a model or a machine could solve all the world’s problems, but it can be used as a tool to help people. And I’m glad to be in service of that goal,” he said.

Shown above: Above top: Rob Gordon, Carl Vinson Institute of Government Director (L) and Jennifer Frum, Vice President for Public Service and Outreach (R) present the 2023 Staff Award to James Byars. (Photo: Shannah Montgomery/PSO) 

Above left: These Nike Letter Bro sneakers, given to Byars by his wife in 2020, were the first pair of sneakers in his collection and sparked his passion for limited edition sneakers.