Berkeley’s data science leader dedicated to advancing diversity in computing

February 2, 2021

This article is cross-posted from 
Berkeley’s data science leader dedicated to advancing diversity in computing 
January 27, 2021  |  Kara Manke  |  Berkeley News

Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, and dean of the School of Information, discussed her vision for the future of data science at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley video)

From dictating which posts appear in our social media feeds to deciding whether or not a suspect might be guilty of a crime, data and computing have come to permeate nearly all aspects of our lives. But while these systems can offer many benefits, their faults — whether data breaches, unintentional biases in algorithms or the proliferation of misinformation — can have disastrous effects, especially on already marginalized individuals and communities.

That’s why Jennifer Chayes, UC Berkeley’s new data science leader, is dedicated to creating an environment where data and computing are informed by leaders from all disciplines, including ethics and the humanities, and where people of all races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds are welcomed at the table.

Chayes, associate provost of the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS) and dean of the School of Information at Berkeley, discussed her vision for the future of CDSS at a virtual Campus Conversations event on Wednesday.

 “More and more of our public systems — (our) criminal justice system, our health system, our education system, our social welfare system — [are] being mediated by computing. … As [data science] becomes the fabric of our society, [we need to ensure) that it is a fabric that will serve its purpose properly,” Chayes said. “We need women, we need Black people, we need Latinx and Indigenous people building this fabric, because they will understand in ways different from the majority how [data] may be used.”

Chayes left her position as a technical fellow at Microsoft Research to lead CDSS in January 2020. Part of what drew her to Berkeley was the sheer scale of the data science research happening on campus, coupled with the wide variety of fields data scientists were working in — from climate change and sustainability to biomedicine and public health to human rights.

“I think, at Berkeley, we are going to have just many, many more disciplines interacting with each other,” Chayes said, when asked about her hopes for the future of the division. “I will feel like a failure if we don’t have joint faculty with every division and school and college on campus … because I think that all voices have to be here, everyone has to be at the table for this to be a success.”

To help increase racial diversity in data science fields, Chayes said that the division has approached historically Black colleges and universities about creating joint master’s programs. The data science major also tends to attract a diverse array of students, many of whom didn’t necessarily intend to go into data and computing when they entered Berkeley.

The CDSS is also planning the construction of a new data science building that will include extensive convening space for students, staff and faculty to collaborate.

“People really need to mix with each other,” Chayes said. “It’s something that I learned at Microsoft. I tried to have as flat of organizations as possible with philosophers, anthropologists and biologists and physicists and mathematicians and computer scientists and lawyers coming together and talking with each other. …  It’s not just learning the language of another discipline, … it is really understanding what are the important problems of other disciplines and why.”

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