As increasing numbers of people move to cities and become more wired and networked, doctoral students across various academic disciplines at Virginia Tech are joining together to focus on how data science can help them find solutions to urban problems.

For Stacey Clifton, of Martinsville, Virginia, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, the UrbComp certificate program is providing an added edge to her research in criminology, which includes police socialization and subculture, as well as community, evidence-based, and predictive policing.

“Applying data science has influenced my approach to problems by allowing me the opportunity to utilize various concepts that I would previously have disregarded,” Clifton said. “I can now see and appreciate how multiple disciplines come together to explain how certain things are occurring.”

Her co-advisor, James Hawdon, a sociology professor, concurs.

“Stacey has benefited tremendously from the UrbComp program,” said Hawdon, who is also director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. “The coursework has broadened her perspective and provided her with a new way to think about issues related to issues of policing. Because of the quantitative skills she has been sharpening in the program, she has reframed her research. The approach she now plans to take will provide novel and rich insights into the networks of the police subculture.”

The UrbComp certificate program is supported through a grant of nearly $3 million from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program and administered through the university’s Discovery Analytics Center.

The program draws students from Blacksburg and the National Capital Region in eight university departments: civil and environmental engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, mathematics, population health sciences, sociology, statistics, and urban affairs and planning.

“Sociology courses help provide theory and context for the urban problems the students are analyzing,” said John Ryan, chair of the Department of Sociology and a co-principal investigator of the grant. “I believe this type of collaboration among the eight departments is the wave of the future for understanding and seeking solutions to complex social problems.”

“The program uses an innovative ‘tapestry’ curriculum for urban computing that weaves interdisciplinary issues,” said Naren Ramakrishnan, Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering, director of the Discovery Analytics Center, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation award supporting the program.

“We emphasize ethical and societal issues for responsible data science and build community through interdisciplinary project teams,” Ramakrishnan said. “UrbComp also stresses the importance of effective communication skills that will help our students facilitate interactions with a broad range of urban city professionals, the end consumers of data science.”

Leanna Ireland, a doctoral student in sociology with a focus on criminology, is participating in the UrbComp certificate program along with Clifton.

Adapted from an article written by Barbara L. Micale