Another Big Gift for Big Data

A New York State university’s $100 million commitment to expand its work in data science—the emerging field that studies how we use the vast amounts of information currently being collected—just got a boost from a local grocery store chain’s family foundation. It’s the second multi-million-dollar grant to such an initiative in recent months.  

The University of Rochester announced that the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation made two large donations totaling $17 million, including $10 million to benefit its Institute for Data Science and the remainder for its children’s hospital. The university is in the middle of a $1.2 billion-dollar fundraising campaign, and both centers are flagship selling points. 

The Institute for Data Science, in particular, is a large commitment for the university for the next five years. Data science involves several potential applications for the heaps of numbers we’re amassing as we increasingly quantify our existence, which means it’s a highly interdisciplinary subject. As a result, the university is building a brick-and-mortar facility to bring together profs in medicine, science, humanities and business. 

Because of the gift from the Wegmans, known for the regional chain headquartered near Rochester, the proposed $25 million facility will be named after the family, which will no doubt lead confused freshmen to wander in for groceries.

The Wegman Family Charitable Foundation is the main philanthropy of the family, with company CEO Danny Wegman also at the head of the foundation. The funder has limited public presence, but has shown an interest in giving toward health organizations like the American Red Cross, and hospitals and health centers. Grants have gone as high as $4 million for one children’s center, but usually range between $50,000 and $200,000. 

"Data science is the defining discipline of the 21st century, and among the University's top priorities," said University of Rochester President Joel Seligman in a statement. "Danny saw the potential of this initiative to build off of our strengths in data science and computational capabilities and our long tradition of entrepreneurship.”

Another $10 million gift recently went to a very similar initiative at the University of Virginia, as hedge-fund whiz Jaffray Woodriff made a grant to his alma mater’s Data Science Institute, which has similar goals. 

As the data behind humans and our behavior grows increasingly important, and the stakes become higher as to whether that information is used for good or not so good, it looks like universities are seeing the way the wind is blowing for this field, and funders are beginning to nudge the work forward.

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