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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The new University of Arizona School of Information explores “dark data” and our relationship with technology

    Programming, science and art are forming an alliance on campus, and it’s coming in the form of the new School of Information.

    In the past, information science has mostly been focused on libraries. That means anything from binding books to understanding various directory systems, such as the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal Classification systems. While these systems of organization are still complex, relevant and needed, recent years have revealed new powers within the field of organizing data.

    Enter the concept of the iSchool.

    “iSchools are driven by an interest in interdisciplinary application of information within society,” said Dr. Bryan Heidorn, the director of the new School of Information and associate professor for the School of Information Resources and Library Science. “We’re not interested in the computer; it’s a handy tool. We’re interested in the information itself.”

    The iSchool will offer three new majors: a Bachelor of Arts in Information Science and Arts, which focuses on the interaction of data with fields such as dance, music and illustration; a Bachelor of Arts in Information Science and eSociety, which focuses on how people create and use identities and information on the Internet; and a Bachelor of Science in Information Science and Technology, which focuses more on programming.

    Researching further into it, this new merger between information and systems manipulation within the depths of data seems to be something of a topsy-turvy wonderland. Heidorn researches “dark data,” which has implications on how businesses are run and how scientific research is conducted. Dark data can sometimes refer to information on crime, but in this case it stands for information lying around on the floppy disks, USBs and hard drives that are in a state of neglect.

    “[Say] the undergraduates and researchers are long gone. The professor looks at [the dark data] and asks, ‘What was my student, Fred, thinking when they made this data?’ It’s dark, it’s sitting in the bottom-left-hand desk drawer,” Heidorn said.

    The peril is that this information is not available to those wading in the greater ocean of the World Wide Web, where it can be synthesized with other data to come to both useful and unexpected conclusions.

    “We want to find that data and give it a home protected in the hub,” Heidorn said.

    Cassandra Rodriguez, a graduate student under Heidorn, is working on her own version of these useful and unexpected conclusions. In view of the recent tragedies and ongoing struggle with mass shootings in our country, Rodriguez is turning to social media to analyze mental health.

    “Mental health is obviously a very important topic that is barely now gaining at least some of the attention that it needs, but we are nowhere near where we need to be in this country in terms of addressing these issues and making sustainable change,” Rodriquez wrote in an email.

    Rodriguez said she hopes to bring us closer with her research.

    “Dr. Heidorn and I began to discuss ideas revolving around being able to perform sentiment analyses on [social media posts] to be a little more proactive about recognizing the problem sooner,” she wrote. “[It] would essentially identify and categorize different words based on their level of emotion.”

    Rodriguez’s tool of choice is natural language processing, a field of study that makes spoken language more or less programmable. It is the same technique that converts your text commands into symbolic equations on sites such as Wolfram Alpha or Google search.

    “The computer would be able to extrapolate any posts that had a certain amount of high-frequency emotional words,” Rodriguez said.

    Of course, this research comes with its fair share of privacy concerns. Are only peers allowed to run the text posts through sentiment analyses and send it to superiors? Should there be someone specifically in charge of monitoring social media accounts at every school? While the struggle to perfect both method and ethics is ongoing, Rodriguez’s work embodies just what Heidorn is talking about when he pushes for both logical talent, as well as creativity and activism.

    “Information scientists need to be one part computer programmer and mathematician, one-third creative sort of creative visualizer and one-third the discipline you’re trying to analyze,” Heidorn said. “We need some really strong programming-skilled people to participate, but we need them to work with people in the real world.”

    Follow Alexandria Farrar on Twitter.

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