Philip Bourne

Daily Progress file

Philip E. Bourne, now dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science, speaks about the power of data on Sept. 6.

As Virginia fans flocked to Grounds ahead of a Friday night football game against the College of William & Mary, some made a detour to a smaller venue 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 soon 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 undergraduate and professional degrees will follow. (The existing Data Science Institute, which will form the foundation of the new school, already offers a master's degree in data science).

“So why all the fuss? 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 acting 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 ahead of a tailgating event hosted by the Alumni Association, and he described a world being transformed by a revolution of data. A better understanding and manipulation 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.

Gathering and sharing data about products and people can have unforeseen consequences too, though, he 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.

In order 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.”

Currently, the proposed school is still getting set up.

“What are some specific areas of expertise you’re trying to build into the school?” asked Wayne Cozart, the executive director of the Jefferson Trust, during a question-and-answer portion.

Bourne said that, by hiring faculty who have joint appointments with the education, environmental science, biomedicine and engineering fields, the school hopes to build 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 first 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 away from their statistics and mathematics fields.

“But the disciplines will learn from each other in a virtuous cycle,” Bourne said. He wants to build specific areas of expertise into the school, but he also hopes that other fields of research will work with the school and ensure that data science research is sound and informed.

The school will be considered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia on Sept. 16 and 17, according to Bourne.

This story has been updated to reflect current offerings at the Data Science Institute and Phil Bourne's role at the proposed school.

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