‘The greater social good’: Preparations underway for the Year of Data and Society


Image via Tom Altany, University of Pittsburgh

Eleanor Matten, the director of the Sara Fine Institute, leads the committee for the Year of Data and Society — the upcoming 2021-22 installment in the annual “Year Of” series hosted by the Office of the Provost.

By Grace Stringer, For The Pitt News

From art to biology, calculus to cooking, Eleanor Mattern said everyone at Pitt utilizes and benefits from responsible data science, making it subconsciously interdisciplinary. 

“We’re all producing data whether we know it or not,” Mattern, the director of the School of Computing and Information’s Sara Fine Institute, said. “There’s data being collected about us, we’re using data in some ways … there’s a recognition that this is a universal theme that unites all of us.”

Mattern leads the committee for the Year of Data and Society — the upcoming 2021-22 installment in the annual “Year Of” series run by the Office of the Provost. The committee with faculty, students and staff will be established soon to help plan a year of events focused on responsible data practices. This follows last year’s Year of Engagement, which hosted virtual events — such as social media challenges, virtual reading series and online civic advising quizzes — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provost Ann Cudd announced the Year of Data and Society on April 28. She said in the announcement that this year’s theme will be greatly beneficial to Pitt’s research community, and that data science is a part of almost every aspect of the University.

Data science now permeates education, government, medicine, engineering, entertainment, science, the arts, humanities and business, touching nearly every facet of life,” Cudd said. “All parts of our University collect and use data and each offers unique perspectives on how data can contribute to student and faculty success, human well-being and the greater social good.”

Cudd tasked her Data Science Task Force last year with coming up with strategies to implement data science into University educational programs, which is outlined in a final report. According to Mattern, initiatives from this report, such as the practice of responsible data science, are going to be utilized in the creation of Year of Data and Society programs.

“While data science initiatives are already well established at many institutions, it is not too late to be a leader in this area … Pitt has the opportunity to step out of the pack and take a national leadership position,” the report said. 

Ethical data science is also a major concern for Mattern. She said there is room at Pitt for increased engagement with responsible data practices, by building it into the curriculum. 

“There’s an opportunity for us at the University of Pittsburgh to really think critically about the impacts of data and society to also build up our curriculum around socially responsible data practices,” Mattern said. 

Mattern added that socially responsible data science is essential for the mitigation of harm, especially around the violation of privacy laws and ethical issues. She said the Year of Data and Society provides the perfect opportunity for the University to draw attention and awareness to complex circumstances. 

“There will be a lot of interesting programming events that [students] might be interested in participating in throughout the year,” Mattern said. “It might spark new ideas or raise some awareness about complicated ethical issues or policy issues around data.”

One of the programs students should mark on their calendar, Mattern said, is a kickoff event that will likely happen at the beginning of the fall semester. She said around late June, the Year of Data and Society committee will have a website and Twitter account running to update the Pitt community on any progress.

Mattern added that the success of the Year of Data and Society relies heavily on engagement from Pitt students. Mattern said any form of engagement — such as participating in events or submitting proposals for programming events — is highly encouraged, because it emphasizes the interconnectedness of data science.

Following the Year of Data and Society, Mattern said she hopes to see its goals represented in the University’s regular curriculum, further increasing Pitt’s standing in data science. 

“Many of us are producing or using datasets in our capacity as faculty, as students and staff. We use data or we collect data, we analyze data for projects that we’re doing,” Mattern said. “One thread that will cut across this Year of [Data and Society] will be an interest in building some awareness about socially responsible data practices so when we work with data … we can do so ethically.”