Vast volumes of data fly through our lives every day. And in the recesses of those diverse streams exist encoded patterns so complex we don’t yet have the capacity to understand what they mean.
But if Western researcher Mark Daley succeeds in his newest role, the Western community will not only understand those patterns, but start using data in such a way that will transform the institution for the benefit of students, faculty and staff across campus.
Last week, Daley was named Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy with a mandate to help the institution make sense of, and make a difference in, a data-driven world
This new role will lead the creation of an institutional data strategy “to empower its students, faculty and staff with the data acumen they need to become 21st-century citizens.” This strategy will guide Western in the development of new training programs, new means of enabling and supporting data-fueled research, and new tools for leveraging the institution’s data reserves.
Western President Alan Shepard called Daley “uniquely qualified” for this role. With joint appointments in the departments of Computer Science, Biology, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Applied Mathematics, Statistics & Actuarial Science and Epidemiology & Biostatistics, Daley is passionate about multidisciplinary research.
As a Principal Investigator at the Brain and Mind Institute and Computational Convergence Lab, and as a member of the Rotman Research Institute and Lawson Health Research Institute, Daley has a “deep appreciation for the importance of collaboration and partnership,” the president continued.
“Not being data-literate in the 21st century is going to be like not being literate in the 19th century,” said Daley, who previously served as Associate Vice-President (Research) and who also chairs the board of Compute Ontario. “Yes, you can still live a fine life but there’s going to be a lot of things that are inaccessible to you.”
With the goal of establishing data as “a common language” across campus, he sees his role as lending expertise when the need arises.
In the coming months, Daley will facilitate a campuswide consultation that seeks to understand the data needs and aspirations of students, faculty and staff. He will also connect with partners in the London community and beyond.
It’s all a part of equipping people and the institution to interpret and tap the potential of what he calls the “data tsunami” facing every area of research.
Daley cited molecular biology as an example of the unprecedented advances of data analytics and artificial intelligence: “Forty years ago, sequencing a single gene was perceived as almost impossible. And 30 years ago, getting a sequence for one gene, that was someone’s PhD thesis. Now an undergraduate student can press one button in a lab and generate a terabyte of data. You can’t manually make any sense of that.”
Part of his new role involves examining the university’s data policies and practices toward developing a institutional data strategy – including ethics and standards of data collection, privacy and consent.
“This is an area where Western has a chance to position itself as a leader. We have a number of scholars in Philosophy, Information and Media Studies, Social Science and Arts and Humanities who are concerned precisely with this issue of the ethics of algorithmic bias and artificial intelligence. This really becomes an area where we are well-positioned to make some serious contributions.”
Real change won’t come from him but from an existing and emerging mass of enthusiastic researchers, faculty, deans, associate deans and department chairs, he said. “This isn’t a transformation that a single individual or single office can thrust upon an institution.”
Daley continued, “The most important point is that this is serving a need in the community. We need to listen to the community to understand what that need is. Then, it’s my job to assist the rest of the university to move forward so that we have a corporate strategy that looks like a 21st-century organization and that we have an academic and research strategy that empowers our students and researchers with this critical set of tools and skills.”