Year of Data and Society will focus on people


The Year of Data and Society — this year’s University-wide theme — signals that “we are moving beyond the how-to and thinking about the why and who it affects when we collect data,” says Eleanor Mattern, the year’s chair.


The “Year Of” initiative focuses attention on one area related to the University for the course of the school year. Programs started during past years have continued and grown.

2020-21: Engagement

2019-20: Creativity

2018-19: Pitt Global

2017-18: Healthy U

2016-17: Diversity

2015-16: Humanities

2014-15: Sustainability

Mattern — a School of Computing and Information faculty member and director of its Sara Fine Institute, whose programming focuses on social justice and technology — hopes that all campuses will find ways to examine “the people beneath data, the people who shape data, and the people who are impacted by data.”

Data can influence everything from public policy to how we perform our work, Mattern says. This year’s emphasis follows the provost’s recent task force that recommended not only more infusion of data science into the curriculum but more understanding of best data practices and how data use affects so much of the Pitt community.

As always, the “Year of” committee will be offering grants to help create data-and-society-focused events throughout the year. Information sessions for these funding opportunities are being held virtually on noon Aug. 30 and 4 p.m. Sept. 2.

Events already scheduled for the Year of Data and Society include a Sept. 8 virtual “conversation” on “Bridging Students and Underrepresented Communities,” a Sept. 21 remote session on “Applying Racial Equity Awareness in Data Visualization” and its associated reading group.

Proposals to host workshops, create educational materials and hold other types of events will be accepted at three points during the year — with deadlines of Oct. 1, Dec. 1 and Feb. 1. Applications for up to $8,000 will be accepted to hold events, develop curricula, and devise research, art works, tech design projects and other programming focused on the year’s theme. More details can be found here.

Those whose ideas may cost more than $8,000 may apply to the Pitt Momentum Funds.

Data, of course, takes many forms, including all the traces we leave behind on the Internet, when we purchase items with cards, when we swipe in to locked doors or carry around a cellphone with GPS.

We look at data sets as neutral facts, Mattern says. “But people are shaping that data with the decisions they make at collection, during analysis.”

When this or any other data is used in research, ethics and privacy are always a concern, says Michael Holland, vice chancellor for science policy and research strategies and a member of the committee planning the Year of Data and Society. “That needs to be an organizing conversation” for faculty and particularly students who employ data in their research, he says.

When Holland was previously at New York University, he set up a data science program focused on urban informatics, showing how data science can help city social agencies to understand their community and deliver better services. “You can think of University operations in that way,” he adds — particularly the work of staff that supports students and has an impact on Pitt’s surrounding communities.

Being able to understand better “how this data is collected, how individuals are protected, how data can be visualized,” can be another tool for staff members and students alike to use, Holland said. He hopes this year’s focus will help participants learn responsible professional practice for data science in their own discipline.

Another hope for the year, he says, will be “having people have a heightened understanding and appreciation for the data-generation side of things, particularly students who are going to use this in their careers. Who generated the data? Who is included? Why were some people left out?”

The same cautions apply to data collected about objects, of course, he says: “These things were produced by people, by organizations, so you have to ask the same things — who built these things? How do they move through the economy?”

Mattern says her committee will be bringing in speakers to help connect the data-and-society theme closely to each Year of’s traditional humanities focus as well. Through events, she says, “we’re interested in profiling Pitt projects that (handle) data in a way that thinks critically about the data.” Part of the committee is already aiming to keep the focus alive beyond this academic year.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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