BOURNE: A school of data science at U.Va. — the right place at the right time

The proposed school represents a new kind of science for the public good


Pictured are Jaffray Woodriff (left), leader of the Quantitative Foundation and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management and University President Jim Ryan (right). 

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

As Clive Humby once said, “Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used.” It is a well worn, but meaningful phrase. Data, when analyzed appropriately, may change the world as much as oil has done in ways both positive — the ability to travel, see and understand our world — and negative — global warming. To push the metaphor to its limits, the proposed School of Data Science at the University is a green refinery for the digital age, responsibly harnessing the power of data to make a positive difference in the world. The University’s Data Science Institute , now in its sixth year, has as its mantra data science for the public good. We are educating students to be leaders in this new economy, training them to be vigilant about how data can be misused and teaching them to ask questions about how to use it responsibly. This is a great start, but a new school puts it all on steroids. The School provides the necessary infrastructure for a large scale effort and expresses the importance that the University places on this emerging field and from which students will graduate to be leaders in the new economy. 

With the recent announcement, we have the opportunity to expand the DSI into a new school, one of only 12 at the University. This will allow us to do something really special on a scale we can’t reach as an Institute. We are creating a “school without walls,” in the words of President Jim Ryan, as a means of connecting data to all academic disciplines. While the new School will have its own building, faculty and students — made possible by the generosity of Jaffrey and Merrill Woodriff and the Quantitative Foundation — it will also have satellites in other schools where data science can be studied and best academic practices exchanged. This makes sense as data science is an interdisciplinary endeavor, embodying aspects of statistics, computer science, information science and applied mathematics which are then applied to all disciplines and the vast treasure trove of data they are accumulating. The outcomes range from new scientific discoveries, to improved efficiencies to a better understanding of the world around us.

The planned School of Data Science will help faculty, students and researchers work across disciplines, in keeping with the original Jeffersonian notion of the Academical Village. The difference is that, in this case, it will be an Academical Village for a global society, where members of the University community can collaborate with the the government, nonprofits and the private sector. We envision an open and transparent ecosystem in which all participants mingle and exchange ideas, while remaining constantly vigilant about practicing responsible data science and making sure everything we do is in service of the public good.

When one thinks of unintended, and perhaps intended, consequences involving data, it's impossible not to think about Facebook. I doubt the founders of Facebook anticipated the consequences of their data platform in distributing fake news and other forms of misinformation. But I also doubt that there weren’t those who knew what they were doing when they used it as such. Thus, data science and how it is used is relevant to over 1.74 billion of us — as of 2016 — that use Facebook since data science is at the heart of what Facebook does. It represents the largest collection of social and behavioral data ever collected. Analysis of those data, for better or worse, is data science. Our job is to train for the better, not the worse.

While not an easy undertaking, the new School must teach our students to always question the data and how they use it — where it came from, how it was engineered, who it will affect and how the results might be interpreted from multiple perspectives. This questioning should begin before software is written, not after it is written, deployed and in the hands of millions of users. Data ethics is already a hallmark of our training, but we must continue to strive further to instill awareness throughout all our academic and research programs. Employers want — and society needs — data scientists who can apply their theoretical training to real-world problems without unforeseen consequences — no small task.

Besides identifying problems, data science can also suggest solutions. For example, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains the Virginia Forest Laboratory measures levels of ozone in the surrounds. Ozone at ground level is detrimental to health, while in the upper atmosphere it is vital as a protective layer against ultraviolet radiation. Data science, engineering and environmental science students working together at U.Va. have figured out how to mount measuring devices on drones and come up with a more accurate and far-ranging view of ozone distribution.

We want our students not only to come up with results but to be community leaders who can shape policy. The initial focus of the new School will be on problems related to health, notably health disparities; the opioid crisis and neurodegenerative diseases; education and how we can better train all students; democracy or more specifically the lack thereof; and business and financial analytics, aimed at improving the financial well-being of the Commonwealth; and last but by no means least, problems identified by the City of Charlottesville to which data science can be applied.

There is much to do in a data driven economy. By committing to be the first School of Data Science of its type in the country, the University has made a great start towards training the workforce of tomorrow, discovering solutions to pressing societal problem, and serving our community. Data Science is a team sport, and we are all members of that team. I look forward to the work ahead.

Phil Bourne is the Director of the Data Science Institute and Acting Dean of the proposed School of Data Science.

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