Monday, January 6, 2014

New University Program Promotes a 'Data Science Culture'

Today, data comes in many forms. All forms create a collective flood flood of sensor data, genomic data, Web click streams and credit card transactions, just to name a few.

While the concept of data science has been around for decades, the notion of a data scientist has become an in-demand career leading to a rise of a new generation of data scientists. Proliferation of sensors, mobile and social trends provide explosive growth of new types of data. Data scientists are creating the tools that can be used to interpret and help translate the streams of information into innovative new products.

The data sources are often called “silos,” suggesting the challenge of combining different data sets to generate insights. But if the data is in a silo, so are the people. In universities, that problem is a key obstacle to progress in data science, according to academic research scientists. That problem, among others, is the focus of a new five-year project, involving three universities and supported by $37.8 million in funding from the Moore Foundation and the Sloan Foundation.

New York University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley are working together in the program announced last month in Washington at an event organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to highlight initiatives being taken by government, industry and academia to advance data-driven scientific discovery and technological progress. The program comes at a time when universities are opening up data science centers. These academic start-ups marry professors and graduate students from computer science, statistics and applied mathematics with those from other departments including biology, medicine, economics and even journalism.

So what is the need for the program? Most of the university data-science programs are focused on adapting data-analysis techniques to specific disciplines. “What this partnership is trying to do is change the culture of universities to create a data science culture,” Joshua Greenberg, director of the Sloan Foundation’s Digital Information Technology program told the New York Times.

Yann LeCun, a computer scientist, is the director of New York University’s new Center for Data Science, but he sees the collaboration as a program with a different agenda. “This is not so much to do science, but to organize yourself to create a new discipline, an environment, a data science environment,” Professor LeCun said.

At each university, 12 to 15 professors will be the core participants representing the life, environmental, physical and social sciences. Each campus will also have a “data science studio,” staffed by data scientists and software professionals, where people from different disciplines will share ideas. The partnership, according to Chris Mentzel, head of Moore Foundation’s Data-Driven Discovery initiative, is intended to be a demonstration project that other universities will emulate.

Part of the common ground is to create software tools for data handling and analysis that can be widely shared. Pursuing that goal, the professors say, will require creating new, long-term career paths for the data scientists that develop such tools. That would mark a significant improvement from the current situation, where “everything you do is start from scratch,” said Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Nobel prizewinner.

The big data rush is evident, although it’s still an unchartered territory. More organizations recognize data science as an integral part of the business and that data is a core competency that can be used to improve decision making, competitive intelligence, in streamlining of internal operations and cross functions, and to increase productivity. 

Hear more about data science from experts in person at The Future of Consumer Intelligence 2014 in Los Angeles, California May 19-21. To learn more click here:

About the Author:  Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist of the Marketing Division at IIR USA, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR’s blogs including Next Big DesignCustomers 1st, and ProjectWorld and World Congress for Business Analysts. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She can be reached at Follow her at  @AmandaCicc.
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