IOWA Magazine | 12-03-2018

The Human Face of Big Data


INSTRUCTOR: Gregory Carmichael, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering


This first-year seminar is offered by the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering but brings together a wide cross-section of students. Carmichael estimates that as many as 16 different majors are represented among the freshmen enrolled this fall.


Carmichael, who uses big data in his research to study air pollution and climate change, asks students to examine how an ever-rising sea of digital information affects their lives on a human level. Online and in the real world, says Carmichael, we leave our digital fingerprints wherever we go. "Big data is everywhere, and it's transforming our lives in many ways," he says. "Everything we touch is essentially a characterization of ourselves that is discoverable and usable—whether we want to or not."

Information has never been easier to access, and we're more connected and efficient than ever. Yet Carmichael says this modern convenience comes at a price. High-profile data breaches have compromised consumers' personal information while social media data is mined to sell users products and influence elections.

Class discussions often revolve around the day's headlines. This year's Cambridge Analytica scandal, for instance, when a British consulting firm was accused of harvesting the personal data of millions of Facebook users to sway voters, provided a real-world example. Students also become familiar with how big data is being used in a variety of disciplines and can lead to career options in fields as varied as computer science, medicine, and journalism.


The seminar is one of several courses offered through the Iowa Informatics Initiative, a multidisciplinary effort to expand the UI's research capabilities and training opportunities in information science. Carmichael serves as director of the initiative, which through a cluster hire program in recent years has added about 20 new faculty members and four staff members whose expertise lies in informatics. Getting to know his students and their interests through the seminar, Carmichael works to connect freshmen with those data-driven programs and professors across the university.

"It's a big tent operation in the sense that it encompasses everything from digital humanities to health informatics—it really touches everybody," Carmichael says of the Iowa Informatics Initiative. "Students are interested in data, and this seminar is a way to stimulate that interest and show them how this might fit into any discipline or degree program."

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