Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Head of new UW-Madison school looking to expand industry-sponsored research

By David Schwartz
Published: September 17th, 2019

While its big deal with Foxconn may not have paid many dividends yet, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s founding director for the  new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences, Tom Erickson, has big plans for industry-sponsored research and corporate engagement.

Erickson, a serial software entrepreneur, concedes that UW-Madison has lagged behind peers in terms of industry-sponsored studies, but he sees the new tech-focused school as an opportunity to do more. As an example, he says data scientists could work with researchers from the School of Human Ecology to analyze complex data on pricing and purchasing trends for retailers in the state. “What should Kohl’s be doing to create new pricing mechanisms based around supply and demand of certain products?” he said. “We want to open up and create ways to collaborate with faculty.” 

Erickson said the new school’s leadership is looking to boost research output in high-tech areas like big data, machine learning, security, and user-computer interactions. Another goal is to increase the availability of computer science and data studies classes, which are currently overloaded with students. Computer sciences became UW-Madison’s most popular undergraduate major in 2018, with 1,560 students. 

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and member of the task force that recommended creating the new school, says computing has become an extension of the traditional “3 R’s” — reading, writing and arithmetic. “Not everyone will be a coder or a data analyst, but having some basic background around the theory of computer science and why it’s important to people in just about any walk of life is vital,” Still noted. 

Erickson sees his four decade career in software entrepreneurship — including as co-founder and CEO of Acquia — will serve him well in his new role because he understands what data scientists and computer science specialists are doing in the field — “what skills they have, what skills they need, and growth prospects for those professions.” 

In recent years Erickson has become more and more interested in the possibilities presented by analytics and big data. “What gets me excited is how data can be used in every discipline to improve that discipline’s core understanding of what’s going on, so they can make better decisions,” Erickson said. 

In health care, big data is being used to understand and examine cells in entirely new ways, ushering in better detection of diseases and other health issues. And in agriculture, complex information is analyzed to optimize productivity for various types of land and different crops. 

“In Wisconsin, particularly in dairy science and cattle, having more data and being able to use that data is a challenge,” he said. “How do you use that smartly? That’s become a big passion of mine.” 

In his new position at UW-Madison, Erickson also aims to improve diversity, inclusion and equity in the computer and data science fields. That means the new school will “absolutely have to have a focus on targeted minorities and gender diversity.” 

“This is a challenge that society has to address,” he said. “The number of workers in tech is just going to increase. It’s vital that underrepresented people and women feel like they have just as much opportunity in this area as anyone else.” 

Source: WisBusiness

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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