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Data for Good

Pioneering research and smart policy-making take the stage at the 4th annual Data Science Day

Apr 19 2019 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

More than a thousand attendees packed into Lerner Hall for Columbia’s fourth annual Data Science Day, eager to hear from experts from across the university who are transforming disciplines and industries through thoughtfully applied data. Columbia Engineering faculty showcased innovative research ranging from blockchain security to extracting speech from brainwaves, while professors from the Law School, Journalism School, School of International and Public Affairs, Medical Center, and more discussed work in areas like protecting data security, understanding online radicalization, and improving patient outcomes.

In lightning talks throughout the April 3 daylong summit, affiliates of Columbia’s Data Science Institute (DSI) shared their work applying machine learning to an impressive variety of challenges. In a panel moderated by Professor Garud Iyengar, chair of Columbia Engineering’s Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR) department, electrical engineering Professor Nima Mesgarani discussed his ground-breaking work in brain-computer interfaces and acoustic signal processing. Recently, he managed to reconstruct intelligible speech from brain activity—a potential game-changer for those who’ve lost the ability to speak—and is also addressing the “cocktail party problem” in hearing aids, which currently amplify more audio than listeners wish to hear.

Among a panel moderated by Professor Shipra Agrawal of IEOR were computer science Professors Michael Collins and Tim Roughgarden. Collins walked the audience through his research in natural language processing and speech recognition, highlighting dramatic improvements thanks to new neural methods, while Roughgarden talked about his investigations of online automated auction reserve pricing, an area with vast implications for sponsored search results. In another panel, fellow computer science faculty member Ronghui Gu discussed his work using mathematical methods to improve the security and reliability of blockchain technology.

Amid all the potential of cutting-edge data science, there are also potential pitfalls, argued the day’s keynote speaker Brad Smith ’84LAW, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft. Unchecked, “mass surveillance at an unprecedented scale” could quickly turn societies Orwellian, he said, unless nations institute rigorous new legal standards to protect privacy, promote transparency, and ensure accountability.

“We are the first generation of people in the history of this planet to give machines this kind of power,” Smith said. “We’re basing our lives on all of this technology, we’re basing our societies on all of this technology, so more than ever the world needs to be able to trust this technology… Ultimately, we need a global conversation about these issues.”

Later, attendees explored dozens of demos and posters from students and faculty, ranging from full-duplex wireless enabling simultaneous transmission and reception to software analyzing indices to predict outcomes of complex global events such as Brexit. A research team from computer science Professor Steven Feiner’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab was voted best demo for their augmented/virtual reality system that allows multiple users to explore an immersive computer-generated 3D urban model of New York City.

“This new system is about multiple users collaborating in either AR or VR as they explore, organize, and share data associated with an urban environment in the context of that environment,” said Carmine Elvezio, a researcher in Feiner’s lab. “We place users in a virtual scale model where they see tweets, Yelp reviews, and NYC 311 complaints relative to the locations from which they are generated.”

Introducing proceedings, Avanessians Director of the Data Science Institute and computer science Professor Jeannette Wing noted that the collective’s overarching mission is “to use data for good.”

“Data Science Day is our moment to showcase our pioneering research and celebrate our engagements with industry,” she said.

Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, delivered the keynote address.

Jeannette Wing, Avanessians Director of the Data Science Institute, discussed the group's mission to leverage "data for good."

Each panel at the event included lively Q&As.

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