New Columbia Institute to Tackle Big Data

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As data sets grow larger and more complex in the digital age, Columbia University is forming an institute to train the next generation of technologists — a group you might call "big data crunchers."

Starting in fall 2013, the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering will offer a four-course certification program where professionals with quantitative backgrounds can study topics like algorithms in data, machine learning and data visualization.

A full-fledged master's program to be added in 2014 will revolve around the institute's six centers: smart cities, new media, financial analytics, health analytics, cybersecurity and foundations of data science.

"The use of data is really exploding in the real world, in industry, so there's a need for talent," said IDSE director Kathy McKeown.

Data analysis is now crucial for businesses in healthcare, finance, education, retail, yet according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company, the country will have a shortage of up to 190,000 data analysts by 2018.

To bridge this knowledge gap, IDSE is taking an interdisciplinary approach, tapping into the breadth of the university's existing scholarship and research from across the hard sciences, social sciences and even the humanities.

"We want people to have technical training, but we also want people to have an understanding of asking the right questions," said Chris Wiggins, a Columbia professor of applied mathematics and a founding IDSE faculty member. 

Wiggins has spent the last half-decade bringing Silicon Alley startups like Foursquare, OkCupid and Buzzfeed to campus to discuss the technical challenges they face.

Future IDSE master's students will be able to build on that relationship with the city's tech industry by working with startups on capstones and other projects.

"Bringing companies up to give talks and to meet students is nice, but far better is bringing companies up to Columbia and actually solving problems with students," Wiggins said.  

The plan is similar to the Industry Co-op Projects that Cornell NYC Tech students worked on during the graduate program's first semester, which ended May 17. Students paired up with mentors from Bloomberg LP, Qualcomm and other companies to build new web services and apps. 

Both schools, as well as New York University, received funding from Mayor Bloomberg's Applied Sciences initiative. Columbia will use its $15 million to retrofit space in the Mudd and Northwest Corner buildings and hire 75 new professors over 15 years.

At IDSE's inaugural symposium in April — "From Big Data to Big Ideas" — an administration representative spelled out how the new Columbia, Cornell and NYU tech schools could help drive New York's economy in the coming decades.

"The Applied Sciences initiative will spin out hundreds if not thousands of companies, create tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs, and create billions upon tens of billions of economic improvement," said Kyle Kimball, executive director of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.