Feature Stories

Growing Data Sciences

New college and center are expanding the campus’s data science leadership
  • Outline of three colorful heads filled with computer chip technology.

“What do you think the cities that your children are going to live in will look like in ten or twenty years? Transportation, energy, safety, security, how resources within cities are used, how cities are planned—all are going to depend on data.”

 – James Kurose

This spring UMass Amherst demonstrated its deep faith in the potential of one of today’s highest-profile emerging technologies by holding a symposium celebrating the creation of the campus’s Center for Data Science. The event drew executives and other representatives from such major corporations as Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Thomson Reuters, MassMutual, Pratt and Whitney, and the New England Venture Capital Association. It also revealed just how boundless are the field’s opportunities.

Consider this: We live in an Information Age in which, individually and collectively, we are creating a digital footprint of staggering proportions. By one recent estimate, companies and consumers are creating between six and seven exabytes of data annually—enough to fill 60,000 Libraries of Congress. Another estimate claims that 90 percent of the data in the world has been created over the past two years. Be it drawn from traditional column-and-row databases such as medical and transactional records or less structured forms such as text, photos, satellite imagery, and audio and video files, this torrent—often called Big Data—just keeps growing.

Therein lies a golden opportunity, or rather a host of golden opportunities. Advances in data science, many driven by university research, are enabling organizations of all kinds to harness the power of Big Data in ways unimaginable even a few years back. Companies, government agencies, universities, and nonprofits are tapping this power to gain previously hidden insights into how to develop new products, make informed decisions, and improve the quality of our lives in countless ways.

At the symposium James Kurose, distinguished professor of computer science and assistant director of the NSF’s Computer & Information Science & Engineering directorate, asked, “What do you think the cities that your children are going to live in will look like in ten or twenty years? Transportation, energy, safety, security, how resources within cities are used, how cities are planned—all are going to depend on data.”

UMass Amherst has long been poised to shine in this new realm. The Department of Computer Science was formed in 1964, with three faculty members. It has grown ever since, becoming a college and building on strengths in machine learning, computer vision, information retrieval, software engineering, theoretical computer science, networking, and multi-agent systems, and expanding into new fields like graphics, multimedia learning technologies, distributed systems, security and privacy, digital forensics, and databases.

Recently reconfigured and renamed the College of Information and Computer Sciences, it now includes some 800 undergraduate majors and 150 doctoral students and is among the largest such programs in the commonwealth. It is distinguished by a strongly collaborative culture that enhances both research and teaching. Faculty members consistently work together across traditional boundaries between specialties within computer science, and graduate students in completing their qualifying exam are required to explore a research problem bridging two distinct areas of computer science. The college is also deeply committed to multidisciplinary research, with faculty members and students engaged in an unusually large number of projects involving other disciplines.

Faculty growth is a major priority. “We are projecting an investment leveraging 80 new faculty in data science related areas: 40 in just the past five years, plus hiring 40 more in the coming decade,” says Professor Andrew McCallum, director of the Center for Data Science. “We are pursuing industrial partners and government sources to invest $100 million to help us meet these goals.”

Academics are another priority. The Center for Data Science is leading the development of new data-science courses, concentrations, certificates, and a master’s degree program to address the workforce demand in the field. That demand is great: the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council estimates that by 2018 there will be 120,000 data-science jobs in the commonwealth alone.

The campus has reason for confidence in the college’s vision. “Our computer science faculty have long been recognized as national and international leaders in research and education,” notes Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “They already generate $18 million a year in federal and other research support. Establishing this new college will enable them to pursue new programs and collaborations within the campus and the university system, increase the scope of the college’s industry relations, and enhance its already strong national reputation.”

Industry and government are taking note. “Several companies, like Amazon, Google, and Thomson Reuters, have already made major contributions of hardware, data, and funding to deepen our collaborations, while others are joining our new Industry Affiliates Program to have greater access to our research and students,” says McCallum. “They’ve also expressed interest in our forthcoming topical workshops this fall and spring.”

On the potential of data science, McCallum says, “Our interests and those of the key players in data science are very well aligned. We all want to make better decisions, whether they’re about how to improve efficiency or maintain our health or expand a business or accelerate the progress of science. In coming up with these solutions, we’re addressing some of the biggest, most complex problems faced by today’s society. And that’s very exciting for UMass Amherst’s researchers and students.”

University Relations