There’s exciting news from the University of Virginia today, as they announce the largest gift in the school’s 200 year history — $120 million courtesy of the Quantitative Foundation. That gift will be used to establish a new school for data science. But what is data science and how will the new school impact the Charlottesville area going forward? Read on for some explanations and opinions…
“Data has the potential to shape our world in ways we are only now beginning to understand.” — University of Virginia President Jim Ryan
What is data science? At an extremely high level, data science means the discipline of applying scientific methods to data analysis in order to extract insights and knowledge. In this era of “big data” where people have access to terabytes of data, data science is how we can extract nuggets of wisdom from that overload of data. Data science helps us discern the signal from the noise, as Nate Silver aptly puts it. The job of data scientist was labeled “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century” by Harvard Business Review in 2012, where they helpfully explained that we should think of a data scientist as “a hybrid of data hacker, analyst, communicator, and trusted adviser.” Not bad, right?
What is the news today from UVa? President Jim Ryan gushed on Twitter that “this is easily the most exciting news I have received as president.” To be fair, his tenure only goes back to September, but still! The largest gift in UVa history comes from the Quantitative Foundation and Jaffray Woodriff, CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund. The money will be spent to establish the School of Data Science, only the 12th separate school at UVa and the first to be added since 2007. A gift this large will establish UVa as a leader in data science.
What does this mean for the Charlottesville area? It’s too soon to know for sure, of course, but Governor Ralph Northam was in town for the announcement, and he believes that “this is a momentous day for the University of Virginia and for the commonwealth.” Not many academic institutions have added a school dedicated to data science, so UVa’s bold step may give it first-mover advantage for some time. Further, the Charlottesville area has been developing its reputation for technology innovation, and this new investment will only help groups like the UVa Licensing & Ventures Group, the Center for Open Science, and the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council make the case that the Charlottesville area is a good bet for starting up a new venture.
This is an exciting announcement, but of course many many details remain to be ironed out, and so there are opportunities for this development to fizzle. Let’s hope the huge potential is realized.