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On the CUSP of Data Science's Watershed Moment

On the CUSP of Data Science's Watershed Moment

New York University

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Each day, content on Facebook wins 2.7 billion comments and likes. By 2016, it's projected that worldwide e-commerce transactions will top $326 billion. Those staggering numbers represent just a fraction of the recent explosion of digital information. It is an incredible jump, and it has challenged businesses, governments, and universities to innovate as never before.

To meet this challenge, New York University (NYU) has launched a series of initiatives dedicated to providing students, faculty, and researchers with the tools necessary to dominate this rapidly expanding field. The university seeks to ensure that New York remains a center of data innovation not just for the next few years, but for decades to come.

In February 2013, NYU announced the formation of the Center For Data Science, a new program that will offer a two-year master's program designed to teach graduates to use automated methods to grapple with massive data sets—and to profit from what that data teaches them. Although data science has an incredible array of everyday applications—from building smarter parking meters to making fire departments more efficient—the Center's director, Yann LeCun, believes the field holds the key to accelerating scientific discovery and innovation.

"By making better use of the enormous amount of readily available data," he says, "we will be better equipped to address a range of vital questions: How does the brain work? How can we build intelligent machines? What is the structure of the universe? How do we find cures for diseases? How can we predict human behavior?"

Although the Center for Data Science, which is also planning to offer a doctorate in the field, will include faculty from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the Center is a pan-university enterprise involving numerous schools, including the Polytechnic Institute of NYU (NYU-Poly). Nearly every one of the school's colleges, including the Stern School of Business and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, have faculty working in the field of data science.

It's clear that data science is having a moment. In 2012, the Obama administration organized a cross-government big data initiative, which aims to make government more efficient in areas as varied as national security, engineering, healthcare, and education. And data science is invaluable to tech companies across the country, from IBM to Etsy. "Enter the data scientist," wrote the tech news website BetaBeat in February 2013, "which suddenly every startup simply must have."

Despite the field's importance, a 2011 study estimated that the United States is facing a shortfall of as many as 190,000 qualified data science experts, and 1.5 million managers and analysts who are familiar with the field. Where there is an employment shortfall, there is an opportunity for graduates, for a university, and for a city like New York, which hopes to become what LeCun called "a data science mecca."

"Data science is becoming a necessary tool to answer some of the big scientific questions and technological challenges of our times."

The Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) was created in 2012 as a historic partnership of NYU, NYU-Poly, New York City, and additional academic and industrial partners to make cities around the world more efficient, livable, equitable, and resilient. CUSP aims to be the leading authority in the emerging field of urban informatics—the collection, integration, management, and analysis of data to improve urban systems and quality of life. The eventual home for CUSP will be in downtown Brooklyn, where NYU will take abandoned Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters and transform it into a hub for research, experimentation, prototyping, and incubation of ideas and companies. Until its new home is ready in 2017, CUSP is occupying 26,000 square feet of office space, including two massive "visualization labs" where researchers are testing theories and developing models to help cities overcome crowding, energy efficiency, and crumbling infrastructure.

"NYU CUSP will spin off hundreds of new companies, create thousands of new jobs, and generate billions of dollars in economic activity for the city," Mayor Bloomberg said at the Center's announcement. "It will drive innovation and lend even more momentum to our booming tech sector—which is creating good paying jobs for New Yorkers every day," added the Mayor, who welcomed CUSP's inaugural class of master's degree students in August 2013.

The one-year program aims to shape its students into the next generation of scientists who will understand urban data sources and how to manipulate and integrate large, diverse datasets. "Data science is becoming a necessary tool to answer some of the big scientific questions and technological challenges of our times," says Gerard Ben Arous, director of the Courant Institute.

Whether at CUSP or the Center for Data Science, the goal is to build multi-disciplinary platforms for scholars working across numerous fields, from engineering and computer science to education and business. Over 500 tech start-ups are located in and around downtown Brooklyn, the home of CUSP, and hundreds more occupy the neighborhoods around NYU's Manhattan campus, where the Center for Data Science is located. Partnerships with companies like these will provide valuable expertise for the faculty at the Center for Data Science, whose graduates will prove invaluable to the start-ups of the future. For LeCun, it's easy to see why New York is becoming an appealing alterative to Silicon Valley.

"It's partly because of the initiatives from Mayor Bloomberg and partly because of an extremely vibrant local industry of large and small start-up companies that are all highly involved in data analysis," LeCun told the New York Times in April 2013, adding that "It's much more fun to be in New York, in terms of life besides work."

Photo: NYU students and faculty collaborate on a research project. Credit: NYU Photo Bureau.