UMass takes a leap into the world of big data

By Anthony Rentsch

(By Camelia.boban (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
(By Camelia.boban (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
The University of Massachusetts made two big statements in the span of a week that signal a concerted effort to expand its big data capacities.

The University announced the establishment of a new College of Information and Computing Sciences and a Center for Data Science. While W. Bruce Croft, who will serve as the interim dean of the new college, said the timing of the announcements was entirely coincidental, they represent the administration’s desire to be a “dynamic and forward-thinking” university.

The new college, effective Sept. 1, will include 800 undergraduate, more than 200 graduate and 150 doctoral students.

According to Croft, the idea for the college has been floating around for five years, with the goal of improving the University’s ability to work across the campus.

“Computing reaches into so many disciplines these days,” Croft said. “We thought we’d be able to plan and collaborate with other colleges by working at the college level.”

In addition, Croft said the college structure makes it easier to develop and create strong relationships with the industry.

Currently, the college encompasses the Bachelors of Arts, Bachelors of Science and minor in computer science programs. Croft said he has plans to add an undergraduate informatics program and master’s programs in data science and cyber security. In the future, he is also looking to add a professional master’s degree program and to incorporate the information technology minor into the college.

Croft said the Center for Data Science, which is to be a part of the college, would share faculty and develop plans with the college.

Katherine Newman, provost and senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, said the center, which was announced at a symposium attended by business leaders from organizations including Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Thompson Reuters, would significantly contribute to the University’s collaborative big data efforts. According to Newman, members of the College of Engineering, the Isenberg School of Management and others have expressed interest in working with the center.

In addition to academic departments, Newman said the center, which is to be run by computer science faculty member Andrew McCallum, has plans to work with industry, as well.

In terms of the big picture, the launch of the college and the center can be seen as a product of the big data trend around the campus and across the state.

Big data, according to the 2014 Massachusetts Big Data Report, can be defined as, “a range of data, data types, and tools to address the rapidly increasing amount of data that organizations around the globe are handling.”

The report indicated that investment funding in the nearly 500 companies that are involved in the Massachusetts Big Data Ecosystem topped more than $2½ billion. The report suggested that the number of jobs for data scientists will continue to increase.

In fact, the University has seen its enrollment in related majors grow in recent years. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of students enrolled in the computer science major more than doubled.

While Newman said there are no plans for a building to be built for the center right now, she hopes the state will see it as a “worthy investment,” just like the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, which recently received $150 million in investments from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the University.

“(Data science and cyber security) are strategic areas of growth for the University,” Newman said.

In the long run, Newman hopes these efforts result in big things for the Pioneer Valley. According to her, the center is part of a plan to turn the area into a Silicon Valley-like epicenter.

“I expect it to be a leading public research center in New England and one of the most powerful in the country,” she said.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.