Changing the world with data sciences
The Data Sciences Institute at UTM has organized several events to discuss data analysis findings and to introduce students to the world of data sciences, a wide-reaching and multidisciplinary field of study.

“As we live in an increasingly data connected world, whether we realize it or not, data actually drives a lot of things that happen to us on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. Bree McEwan, associate director of the Data Sciences Institute (DSI) in conversation with The Medium. However, while data is interspersed in many aspects of our lives, its presence is not necessarily obvious, causing it to “[fade] into the background of our daily life.”

The DSI was established in the summer of 2021 with the goal of introducing data sciences to the U of T community. The institute offers various grants for faculty as well as programs for students, such as the Summer Undergraduate Data Sciences Research Opportunities Program. 

Additionally, the DSI has different themes for research across U of T’s campuses. Particularly, at the University of Toronto Scarborough, the theme is computational and quantitative social sciences, while at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), the theme is responsible data science. Dr. McEwan explains that the questions posed by the DSI@UTM are: “What are the ethics of data science? What are the implications for social justice, for the environment, [and] for sustainability?”

In alignment with the DSI@UTM’s theme, the institute has organized events and seminars to encourage discussion on data findings. Dr. McEwan draws attention to Data Digest, which is a series of meetings where UTM faculty discuss their research. “[We’re trying] to see what’s already going on in the community; we don’t want to just bring in new stuff,” says Dr. McEwan, explaining the distinction between Data Digest and other presentations. Additionally, Data Digest meetings enable in-person networking—something that was impossible during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The most recent Data Digest event occurred on January 18, 2023, when the Data Sciences Institute (DSI) held its “Data in our Community” event. The three speakers included Assistant Professor Sonya Allin from the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, as well as Associate Professor Shauna Brail and Associate Professor Tara Vinodrai from the Institute for Management and Innovation.

Professor Brail and Vinodrai’s presentation focused on data regarding recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic in Canadian cities. Professor Brail noted a deviation in transit ridership recovery between cities, with Brampton exceeding pre-Covid-19 ridership, Mississauga reaching pre-pandemic levels, and Toronto trailing in recoveries. Spillover effects onto office occupancy was also observed, as downtown Toronto’s office occupancy rate plummeted while its vacancy rate skyrocketed.

“When we first went into [the] pandemic, there was great fear of an overall economic collapse—and that’s not what happened,” said Professor Brail in her presentation. She noted that the Covid-19 pandemic created opportunities for some and challenges for others, and such effects varied at different times throughout the pandemic. She mentioned Shopify as an example—which grew significantly at the pandemic’s onset, but lost market capitalization in recent times. 

“Even if we’re uncertain about exactly what a single piece of data is telling us, when we look at multiple sources, we’re able to triangulate and understand the picture of it better,” stated Professor Brail. Though, finding data sources can be difficult. Professor Vinodrai pointed out that public data tends to have slower releases, while private data can be expensive or unavailable. The reliability of data must be examined, and its comparability is also an issue. For example, different sources may use varying definitions of city boundaries, which limits the consistency of data comparison.

Professor Allin’s presentation concerned data on trees in Mississauga. She contended that urban forests are important for many reasons, including, but not limited to, regulating airflow, purifying air, and minimizing noise. Professor Allin also explored the use of data in pedagogy. In CSC207: Software Design, taught by Professor Allin, students were given data visualization tasks—where they created displays and maps based on data—to explore how data is used for informed decision making. 

There will be two more Data Digest meetings held this semester: on February 1, 2023, with the topic of “Data and Students,” and on March 1, 2023, with the topic of “Big Data Management.” Additionally, the DSI will be holding its “Data and the Metaverse” event on February 24, 2023, where there will be discussions about the relationship between virtual reality and data sciences. The events are open to all UTM students who register.

In her interview with The Medium, Dr. McEwan emphasizes that data sciences are similar to the internet in some ways, which is a technology that revolutionized the world and became a norm. “The idea is: it could change everything, but at the same time, you don’t really notice it anymore, right?” She believes that data sciences will become more normalized in the future, where people will be informed about what data sciences is about. “[Data sciences] is, at the end of the day, ideally a tool to help understand the world better, and in some ways, [a tool] that can potentially create a different world—hopefully with responsible data science, a better world,” concludes Dr. McEwan. 

News Editor (Volume 49) | — Larry is a third-year student specializing in accounting. He finds writing to be an outstanding medium to spread messages, thus being a phenomenal way to express oneself and to have one’s voice heard. Through his contributions to The Medium , Larry hopes that everyone can witness how enjoyable and invigorating writing can be, such that they too may be inspired to write out their stories. When he’s not studying or writing, Larry will probably be learning Japanese or listening to music, all the while contemplating what life’s next story would be.


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