Advancing Data Science and Democracy in Partnership with Germany
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How should democratic societies balance the potential benefits of big data and artificial intelligence with human rights? How can we use machine learning to advance diagnostics and healthcare while preserving privacy protections?
Amid the rapid acceleration of emerging technologies, these are questions researchers plan to tackle jointly in a new research engagement between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Carolina’s long-time strategic partner in Germany.
In a virtual dialogue on Feb. 17 and 18, key faculty from both institutions reflected on challenges and opportunities for advancing their fields and exchanged ideas for research collaboration. The conversation, hosted by Carolina’s Vice Provost for Global Affairs Barbara Stephenson and Tübingen’s Vice President for International Affairs and Diversity Monique Scheer, centered around two core themes: data science and health, and data science and democracy.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance to our democratic societies of developing frameworks for regulating emerging technologies,” said Stephenson. “By collaborating with international partners to address important research questions in data science, we can accelerate our progress toward solving the challenge of regulating the use of data and digital tools in our democracies.”
Both universities have strong centers and academic programs dedicated not only to the development of data science but also its impact on society. Carolina launched a data science minor in Fall 2021, and it will launch its new School of Data Science and Society in Fall 2022.
“The timing is perfect for this collaboration,” said Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences. “We can take what we’re learning from our Tübingen work and use it to shape our own program to build the school.”
On the healthcare front, data analytics and artificial intelligence in diagnostics could bring enormous advances in personalized medicine and other applications, and both universities have working groups dedicated to these issues.
Stan Ahalt, director of the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) and professor of computer science at Carolina, noted that long COVID is an important topic of study in both the U.S. and Germany. He and other faculty discussed testing the efficacy of one another’s machine learning algorithms—exchanging methodology rather than privacy-protected patient data—to uncover biases and better understand environmental and socio-economic factors that correlate with long COVID.
“Just as oil shaped society, data will shape society,” said Ahalt. “Data is becoming an overwhelming factor in how we think and act.”
As part of this two-day virtual gathering, UNC-Chapel Hill and Tübingen faculty of journalism, information and library science, media studies and law met to discuss data science and democracy.
“With rising tensions in Europe, it’s more important than ever for UNC to expand its research presence and for us to forge more collaborations with our German partners,” said Tori Smith Ekstrand, Royster Distinguished Professor for Graduate Education in the Hussman School of Journalism & Media.
UNC-Chapel Hill and Tübingen have long collaborated on these issues, especially to understand the impact of the digital revolution on democratic processes.
“We are obviously well positioned to grow connections in data science, democracy and beyond,” said Ekstrand. “The EU is driving much of technology policy around regulation of the platforms and privacy law right now. These are two areas I am eager to see us collaborate more on.”
Ekstrand will bring members of Royster Society of Fellows, a UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral fellowship, to Germany this summer. The Graduate School and Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs will contribute funding for 10 Royster Fellows and five Carolina faculty to participate in the July conference at Tübingen. Additional faculty members interested in the data science collaboration with Tübingen may join meetings organized alongside the Royster conference.
To close the February dialogue, the universities announced joint seed funding to support collaborative projects involving data science and health, data science and democracy, and data science and urban planning over the next two to four years.
For more information about Carolina’s collaboration with Tübingen, contact Melissa McMurray, OVPGA manager of global partnership administration (firstname.lastname@example.org).
January 23, 2023