Big Data Buzz: Kevin Skadron on University of Virginia’s Big Plans for New Big Data Institute

Kevin Skadron, Department of Computer Science, UVa

Kevin Skadron, Department of Computer Science, UVa

The “Big Data” buzz is getting louder in Cavalier country. The University of Virginia (UVa) is positioning itself to be a major player in Big Data with the recent addition of its Big Data Institute.

The institute was born out of a Big Data Summit held at the University in May 2012. It will leverage current faculty talent and new hires across disciplines to focus on the critical global need to develop analytics, data storage and data security solutions that accompany the surge of massive data sets in today’s society.

Kevin Skadron, Professor and Chair of Computer Science at UVa, is helping the University develop an overall plan for big data that will identify hiring needs, address curricular issues, coordinate service and research needs, create connections with industry and enable fundraising.

WashingtonExec had the opportunity to conduct a Q&A with Kevin Skadron about the new institute’s mission, the Center of Data Ethics, and his hope to produce a much more data literate student body and citizenship.

WashingtonExec: What are the goals of the new Big Data Institute at UVa?

Kevin Skadron: Major goals are:

  • To provide infrastructure, support and training in the areas of data management, computation, analytics, visualization and ethics.
  • Implement interdisciplinary, integrated curricula at both the graduate and undergraduate level.  The goal is to train students for jobs in the field on the one hand and bring a higher level of data literacy and awareness across disciplines.
  • Stimulate and facilitate new interdisciplinary collaborations in data mining, predictive modeling, algorithms, and computational methods that transform research and scholarship at UVa.
  • Develop corporate, NGO and government partnerships for research and training.
  • Develop a small numbers of “Centers of Excellence” in Big Data domains

The opportunities, challenges and limits of data will increasingly drive research and scholarship for many years and across nearly all disciplines, and we seek to place UVA at the forefront of data-driven and digitally-enabled research and in producing a much more data literate student body and citizenship.”


WashingtonExec: Can you outline some of the most compelling conversation topics at the summit that lead to the procurement of the University’s Big Data Institute?

Kevin Skadron: As a comprehensive university with many schools, e.g., engineering, law, medicine, education, business, etc., the Summit produced a breathtaking number of unexpected synergies and opportunities.  Faculty and students who had not previously met found potential collaborators in unexpected places and developed new research trajectories. The Summit also revealed our opportunities, areas of distinction, and demonstrated a need, and stimulated planning, for some kind of interdisciplinary, collaborative effort, i.e. an institute.  As just one example of the kind of synergies exposed, there was a clear theme that the ethics of many types of data and inquiry are in a grey zone that requires help from leading thinkers on these topics.

WashingtonExec: What do you hope to achieve within the Center of Data Ethics and how do you plan to achieve that?

Kevin Skadron: The proposed Center for Data Ethics, Law and Policy will coordinate ethics, law and policy events and research across grounds in the area of Big Data – from medical records to data mining to social media. The mission is to coordinate, host meetings, symposia, seminars, workshops, research projects, etc., and coordinate among ethicists, lawyers, researchers, and practitioners in the field. Subjects of interest include medical records, commercial use of data, appropriate use of human subjects. The center will also coordinate teaching in ethics and policy in the area of data management and privacy.


“A unique feature of our proposed curricula is that it is cross-disciplinary and conjoins data integration, computation, statistics and analytics, ethics, etc. and a realization of how these pertain to the diverse spectrum of Big Data domains.”


WashingtonExec: What do you believe are the most critical areas of development for the students at the Big Data Institute with regard to the challenges that they will face in the workforce?

Kevin Skadron: There is a large demand for data scientists and in every field, for graduates who are versed in cutting-edge methods for managing and drawing insight from large data sets and new computational and analytic methods. There is an even larger demand for data- and computationally-literate workers and managers. A unique feature of our proposed curricula is that it is cross-disciplinary and conjoins data integration, computation, statistics and analytics, ethics, etc. and a realization of how these pertain to the diverse spectrum of Big Data domains. Few students posses that diverse skill set and a realization of how they might impact diverse disciplines. If our program is successful, our students will have that.

WashingtonExec: What role will the Big Data Institute play in the university’s research and curriculum programs in the coming years?

Kevin Skadron: The initiative is having a major impact.  Big data is now on the radar across the institution and many units are or plan to hire in the area. New collaborations are emerging that will likely drive some of the areas that UVA is best known for in 5-10 years. And new courses are being planned in the area.

WashingtonExec: What excites you most about the new institute?

Kevin Skadron: The ability to bring together educators and researchers from fields that rarely interacted, and produce new learning and innovations that wouldn’t be possible without the Institute.


“The proposed Center for Data Ethics, Law and Policy will coordinate ethics, law and policy events and research across grounds in the area of Big Data – from medical records to data mining to social media.”


WashingtonExec: Can you elaborate on the new possibilities that the new institute opens up for the university? Are there any particular initiatives for “big data” innovations underway?

Kevin Skadron: New possibilities – this creates a structure that will foster new knowledge creation, and drive a new degree of data and computational literacy in our students.

Initiatives, we are already:

  • Planning to boost infrastructure, support and training in the areas of data management, computation, analytics, visualization and ethics
  • Planning interdisciplinary, integrated curricula at both the graduate and undergraduate level (a masters in data science is the most advanced in terms of planning; our goal is to have the first class of students enter in summer 2014)
  • Planning new programs to help foster more interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Starting to search out corporate, NGO and government partnerships for research and training
  • Starting the planning of the Center for Data Ethics, Law and Policy

 

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