CHARLOTTESVILLE — As Virginia fans flocked to Friday night’s football game against William and Mary, some made a detour to a smaller facility to cheer on a different cause: the University of Virginia’s proposed School of Data Science.
The school has been approved at the university level but still faces some state authorizations.
It plans to offer graduate degrees in the discipline, which examines how to gather, analyze and communicate vast amounts of data in more efficient and responsible ways. Eventually, undergraduate certificates and degrees will follow.
“ What is this thing about data science and why does it matter?” said Phil Bourne, the current director of the Data Science Institute and the interim dean of the proposed school, which will grow out of the institute.
He spoke to a full house of people clad in orange and navy blue before a football tailgating event hosted by the Alumni Association, and he described a world being transformed by a revolution of data. A better understanding and use of data can lead to breakthroughs in medical treatment, social engagement and education, which are some areas where the future school is hiring faculty and hoping to devote resources, he said.
Gathering and sharing data about products and people also can have unforeseen consequences , Bourne warned, citing the Cambridge Analytica scandal where a consulting firm hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign harvested Facebook users’ data without their consent and aimed to influence voters’ behavior.
To navigate this new world, Bourne said, future employees need to have the technical skills to gather, analyze and disseminate data, as well as have the ethical mindset to tackle important questions without compromising’ people’s rights.
“These are the jobs your kids and grandkids will be asked to work on,” he said, before describing a gap in the number of people trained to work with data and the number of people employers want to be proficient with data. “The supply and demand are completely out of whack.”
Bourne said that, by hiring faculty who have joint appointments with the education, environmental science, biomedicine and engineering fields, the school hopes to create a faculty and student base who are interested in tackling big problems, as well as build a mindset of working across disciplines.
When the school was proposed, upon announcement of a record $120 million gift from local venture capitalist and philanthropist Jaffray Woodriff, some faculty feared that it would take resources from their statistics and mathematics fields.
“But the disciplines will learn from each other in a virtuous cycle,” Bourne said.
The school will be considered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia on Sept. 16 and 17, according to Bourne.