New Network and Data Sciences Center to Open at Penn

The University of Pennsylvania is launching a new, interdisciplinary research effort to study and solve problems using the tools of the digital age: The Warren Center for Network & Data Sciences.  

The Warren Center will officially open at a public event held at the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium on Oct. 18 at 3 p.m. It will be led by founding director Michael Kearns, professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-director Rakesh Vohra, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and the Department of Economics in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Serving as a complement to the Engineering undergraduate program in Network and Social Systems Engineering, it will provide funding in the form of graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, connect faculty and students from different disciplines and bring in outside experts to advance research in this cutting-edge field. 

The integration of computers in all facets of modern life has led to an explosion in networks and the amount of data flowing through them. This information has enabled the more efficient management of electrical grids and new research techniques in fields ranging from sociology to astronomy to genetics. But this proliferation of information can be a double-edged sword; social media networks, for example, have opened the doors to new ways of studying populations but also raise questions about privacy and the commodification of user data. 

“We’re not just going to study networks and the data they generate,” Kearns said, “but also the thorny social implications that go along with them. We don’t want to just be engineers that look only at the technical problems, but we want to look at the policy and social problems and find solutions for them.”

While The Warren Center will be formally located within Engineering, the broad scope of its mission has attracted 30 inaugural members spanning Wharton, the School of Arts and Science, the Perelman School of Medicine, Law and the Annenberg School for Communication. This interdisciplinary approach is intrinsic to the solution-oriented nature of the Center’s research agenda.       

“If you see the same answer coming up when you look at the problem in a number of different ways, it’s probably a good indicator that’s the right answer to the question,” Vohra said.   

In addition to Kearns and Vohra, the launch event will feature talks by Eduardo Glandt, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and by Alvin E. Roth of Stanford University, who shared in the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Roth’s Nobel-winning work was on a theory for finding mutually beneficial matches between nodes in complex networks. The theory’s applications include the process medical students use to apply for residencies, as well as a program for finding compatible donors and recipients for kidney transplants.    

“We’re planning on funding research projects that, in addition to being scientifically stellar, have some chance of doing social good,” Kearns said. “That’s one of the reasons Roth’s talk is perfect for this launch: network science can show which kidney is compatible with each recipient, and it needs to draw on algorithms, networks and big data sets, but, at the end of the day, this was a research project that saved people’s lives.”

A homegrown example of the kind of work The Warren Center hopes to encourage comes from member Shawndra Hill, an assistant professor at Wharton who has led a multi-year project that uses crowdsourcing to map the location of defibrillators in public spaces.

The Warren Center was made possible by a donation from Fred and Robin Warren. Fred Warren is an alumnus of both the Engineering and Wharton schools and is a member of the Engineering Board of Overseers.  

"Penn Engineering's steadfast commitment to innovation is what keeps me engaged with Penn,” Warren said. “We hope that The Warren Center will become the premiere academic and technology incubator of its kind."

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