UC Berkeley announces creation of Division of Data Science and Information

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UC Berkeley announced Thursday morning that it will create a new campus division, provisionally called the Division of Data Science and Information.

The new division builds on several years of existing programs. The interdisciplinary and student-centric creation of the popular data science major, the creation of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, or BIDS, and cross-campus efforts and conversations all influenced the creation of the division, according to Interim Dean for Data Science David Culler.

Creating the division will be a gradual process. Culler said he would like to bring the division into existence by July 1. Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos said he hopes to have a new provost to lead academic planning in the division by the beginning of the next academic year.

“We don’t just go around willy-nilly creating new divisions,” Alivisatos said. “This is a big deal for us.”

The new division will be a peer to other campus colleges and divisions, such as the College of Engineering or the division of biology, Alivisatos said. The division will stress interdisciplinary collaboration among existing departments and will work to integrate data and information science into a suite of existing academic and scientific fields.

Director of BIDS and Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter said that, ideally, the division will have a physical space to house data and information resources and promote cross-campus collaboration.

“This is a real renaissance in interdisciplinary thinking,” Perlmutter said. “I’m hoping it might mean that the next generation of tech comes from people who really understand social science, and the next generation of humanities thinkers really understand what the tech people are doing.”

Students can expect new interdisciplinary courses that may be developed by faculty from multiple departments, as well as possible new majors and a data minor. In addition to the new provost, Alivisatos said the campus will place an emphasis on hiring faculty with data science and interdisciplinary backgrounds across many subject matters.

Campus senior and data science major Alexander Ivanoff has spent several years working on student teams to help develop the campus data science program. Ivanoff said he hopes that the new division will integrate campus departments by connecting students and researchers from all over campus with data science resources.

“We don’t want this to be another weird, technical major that’s like a cult on campus. We want it to be well-integrated and well-received,” Ivanoff said. “There’s a lot of people on campus who think what they’re doing with data is cool and want to share it.”

Culler said the creation of the new division reflects a productive shift in the organization of the campus. Instead of separate, divided colleges and departments, Culler hopes that the new division will promote “permeable boundaries” among disciplines and help create a universitywide culture of “shared purpose.”

Campus programs are already connecting data science resources with social science research. As part of her senior thesis on the Facebook group UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, campus senior and sociology major Michelle Cera attended workshops at the D-Lab, the campus data resource center for social sciences. At the workshops, she learned to use qualitative analysis software to store, organize and interpret information from interviews for her thesis.

“It’s not just data science people who will be benefiting. Everyone involved with research will benefit,” Cera said. “(That software) made everything so much more efficient and meaningful.”

Culler said other universities may follow UC Berkeley’s model.

“Some people say that’s just Berkeley — it’s grassroots, it’s bottom up; only at Berkeley you could defy the structures in place like that,” Culler said. “And there’s some truth to that — many universities have been looking at Berkeley to take that leadership step. And now they’re saying, ‘We can do that, too.’ ”

Sam Levin covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the new division as the Division of Data Science. In fact, it is called the Division of Data Science and Information.