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Why we need the UvA Data Science Centre

11 November 2020
- by Paul Groth, Professor of Algorithmic Data Science at the Informatics Institute, UvA

As more data becomes available and the applicability of data science increases, the University of Amsterdam is looking to capitalise on these factors. Its mission is to enable all its faculties to take advantage of cutting-edge data science technology to further research across all domains. With this in mind, the UvA Data Science Centre will be launched in 2021.

Accelerating science through data

As scientists and researchers, we are already immersed in what Turing Award winner Jim Gray termed the 4th paradigm: the use of data-intensive techniques to attack the hardest problems in research. This can clearly be seen in how researchers have tackled the many, sometimes unexpected, problems that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, what is the real-time economic impact of COVID-19? Through the use of novel data sources and data science techniques, Raj Chetty and his team at Harvard have been answering that question. During the Amsterdam Data Science meetup series on COVID-19, we saw how data science is being used to answer diverse research questions, such as understanding the virus’s impact on our transportation system or building better predictive models for the disease.

At the University of Amsterdam (UvA), rarely a week goes by where I don’t see my colleagues in a variety of disciplines engaging with data to do impactful science. Recent examples include:

The driving forces behind the Data Science Centre

Given these compelling examples of data-driven research already taking place at the university, we asked ourselves how can we further support and expand the use of such techniques in all research domains across the UvA?

In our discussions with researchers and faculties, one of the clear needs was for skilled data scientists and engineers to be part of research teams. We see this from Chetty’s experience, where the availability of data scientists and engineers as part of the team was central to being able to answer the research question. They were able to develop the required data pipelines, integrate heterogeneous datasets and anonymize data correctly. Personally, it’s clear to me that this team science oriented approach is critical for data-driven research. 

The second area where we saw opportunities for acceleration was interdisciplinary cooperation oriented around data. We know that from large scale studies that communities arise around datasets and that these communities often draw from different disciplines and methodological backgrounds. For example, in the AI4Science lab, researchers who study methods of causal discovery are working with those who work on gene regulatory networks to further research in both areas. In the case of studying urban environments mentioned above, urban geographers and political scientists came together around street view datasets. 

To address these needs, the UvA will launch a Data Science Centre (DSC) in 2021. The centre was inspired by similar initiatives at NYU, Berkley and more locally by the Netherlands e-Science Centre and the University of Maastricht. However, we aim to have our own unique flavour that will leverage the UvA’s strengths.

Data Science Centre activities

First, the DSC will embed data scientists and engineers throughout every faculty in the university. We will create a community where knowledge sharing is key. Data scientists and engineers will share knowledge and experience through weekly sessions at the Library. The Library has always served as an intellectual crossroads within universities where scientists acquire knowledge and skills making it a natural home for the DSC.

We aim to have 35 dedicated staff by 2025 and will offer training opportunities for faculty and staff members more broadly. This will ensure that faculty members will be able to act on new skills gained and the ideas and knowledge sharing happening in the DSC.

Second, following the success of collaborative interdisciplinary PhDs and researcher assistants (as seen in the UvA’s research priority areas, AI4 Science and ICAI Amsterdam labs), the DSC will adopt a similar program to innovate data science methods through engagement with hard domain specific research questions.

The Data Science Ecosystem

Just as the UvA helped spur the Amsterdam Data Science (ADS) ecosystem over five years ago, it is now harnessing the ecosystem to improve its broader research. The DSC will work together with ADS to facilitate data science related collaboration and networking in and outside the university. Indeed, this last point shouldn’t be underestimated: data driven research often requires collaboration with parties outside the research domain. Again, reflecting on the COVID-19 economy-tracking example, the data used is supplied by multiple commercial parties. Thus, connecting to the wider data science community through ADS is critical for enabling world-class research.

Using the strengths of the UvA and ADS ecosystem, I’m excited to see the new discoveries that the UvA Data Science Centre will make possible. If you are interested in collaborating with the centre, please contact DSC@uva.nl.

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