The University of Massachusetts went big on Big Data within a week

The University of Massachusetts went big on Big Data, within a week. It outlined plans to create a Center for Data Science, raising $100 million to hire 40 faculty members in the next 10 years. And it elevated the “school” of computer science to a “college.”

The new center will introduce a master’s degree program next year, opening a pipeline to employment for an increasing enrollment. Since 2007, the number of students majoring in computer science has tripled, according to W. Bruce Croft, a computer science professor in Amherst who is interim dean of the new College of Information and Computer Sciences.

Having outgrown its two earlier incarnations, this college will oversee the progress of 800 undergraduates, 150 graduate students, 350 employees and a budget of $21 million. To be sure, rival institutions across the country are chasing the Big Data moment by introducing similar master’s level degrees.

Why all the fuss about factoids? Computer systems today produce and collect bits of information about everything under (and beyond) the sun — including human behavior. As most people know, Google uses data from web searches to deliver advertisements styled to appeal to individual web users. Data helps shape smarter online pitches, annoying as they may be. While people may bristle to have their actions quantified so coldly, these numbers illuminate real-world actions and allow scientists to make meaningful predictions and can guide people in business to smarter decisions. Data also drives computer applications and devices like wearable motion sensors that can aid fitness and health.

Fields like marketing that once operated on instinct now grind data in the hunt for sales, with remarkable success. At the same time, data is accumulating faster, as a rule, than anyone’s ability to manipulate it. A new glossy report from the UMass Data Science Faculty Working Group boasts of the arrival of “an age of ubiquitous data” that is revolutionizing how business, government, science, medicine and education operate.

UMass considers itself in the top 25 computer science programs nationally but can’t rest on its oars. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy is credited with backing the higher status for the computer sciences in part because it will help UMass forge new industry ties and attract research grants. The UMass computer science faculty already generates some $18 million a year in research support.

By investing in data science, UMass will attract talent to the Valley and add meaningfully to the notion of a Knowledge Corridor. The school can both serve and influence this emerging field while creating opportunities for students.

That could lead to spinoff businesses that stay in the Valley, widening the local high-tech workforce. One company that’s already taken root locally is Fiksu, developed by UMass professors Mark Corner and Micah Adler. Fiksu uses data to help client companies market mobile devices. After five years, it employs 250 people, with offices in Boston and Northampton. The state will house an estimated 120,000 Big Data jobs as early as 2018. UMass is on a path that could keep more and more of them here in the Valley.

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