About the Lab

About the Lab's name

I first learned about the Etymology of the word data (from Latin datum "thing given" or "to give") at a talk about the Hubble Telescope. The idea of something "that is given," caught my attention about how data could be a catalyst for sparking someone's interest and inspiring to appreciate, understand and discover something new! This explains the Data-Inspired Discovery part of the name.

In the fall of 2017, I organized and led a weekly series of lunch discussions about Data Science at Rice University, specifically on the ethical and social implications of big data, data science and analytics. The meetings attracted a group of students from different disciplines. One of the participants talked about the book Weapons of Math Destruction (Cathy O'Neil). After reading the book and based on my interactions with Dr. Richard Tapia and serving as mentor with Rice's Tapia's Center for Equity and Excellence, I became interested in what turned out to be the emerging field of Algorithmic Fairness, which explains the second part of the name.

But what is the meaning of the asterisk in the Lab's name? The asterisk represents a coefficient (i.e a multiplicative factor) and suggests in a metaphorical way, that AF (Algorithmic Fairness) is a coefficient that balances and enriches the Data-Inspired Discovery process.

The story

Although data have been part of humanity for centuries, recent advancements in mathematical and statistical methods coupled with impressive computing power have positioned data in a new dimension. Indeed, data-rich environments have been part of my academic and professional journeys, encompassing projects in a wide range of domains such as, Big Code Analytics (Rice University's Pliny Project); learning analytics and games for science education (STEMscopes™); information retrieval in nautical archaeology and ship reconstruction, and digital humanities (Picasso's , Cervantes's Don Quixote, and John Donne's poetry).

There is no doubt that the technical dimension of computer science is impressive, but what is even more fascinating are the people who create and make the advancements in the field a reality. I witnessed this fact while meeting in person various Turing, Abel and Fields laureates at the 2nd Heidelberg Forum in Germany. During a conversation with Vint Cerf in one of the dinners, he mentioned the then upcoming book "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution" (Walter Isaacson), which I read once it was published. This coincided with my participation in an NSF Research Coordination Network on Socio-technical systems, that studies technology from the interconnections between people and technology.

It is unquestionable that data science, machine learning, and AI continue to impact society. And although this impact is mostly positive, there are some indications about unintended consequences of algorithms in these domains, among other perpetuating exclusion, unfair outputs, or negative feedback loops. These problems transcend the technical realm. In fact, humans discovered these bias and negative feedback loops, rather than the algorithms themselves!

The three main factors at UST that motivated my interest in launching this lab are: a) given UST designation as Hispanic Serving Institution, b) its strong Liberal Arts foundation, and c) my role as advisor to the Celts Computing Club. As a learning and research space, the DID*AF Lab offers an interdisciplinary and inter institutional environment where students work on real problems; develop prototypes, applications and solutions; and critically evaluate their societal impacts. Simultaneously, the lab informs and enriches my teaching pedagogy, which is anchored in a socio-technical framework. This approach to computer science education, takes into consideration the contextual embeddedness of people, technology and data, and how they interact with and affect each other.