Campus and Community

“Data science is the fourth paradigm of science”

These are the words by professor Mário Figueiredo, coordinator of the new MSc programme in Data Science and Engineering.

Professor Mário Figueiredo (M.F) is the coordinator of the new MSc programme in Data Science and Engineering. We tried to understand a little more about data science and its growing importance. Online applications are open until 2nd August. This MSc programme has 30 places available.

How did you come up with the idea of creating this master’s programme?

M.F: We had been thinking about this for quite some time. I talked with Arlindo Oliveira (president of Técnico), Rosário Oliveira (professor at the Department of Mathematics) and André Martins (invited professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and researcher at Unbabel) partly because of Lisbon Machine Learning Summer School (LxLMS). We thought that it would be interesting to create an MSc programme more academic and comprehensive than LxLMS. Before Artificial Intelligence (AI) become a subject of discussion worldwide, many universities started investing on this area, so we thought it made sense doing the same at Técnico. The team that ended up working more actively in the various phases of this master’s proposal besides me was Rosário Oliveira and Francisco Santos (Department of Computer Science and Engineering). We will coordinate the MSc programme in the first two years.

After moving this idea forward, how did you create the curricular plan?

M.F: We quickly realised that the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Mathematics should be involved. Data Science has a very wide spectrum that includes mathematics, computer science, electronics, etc. and it is also a multidisciplinary field; statistics or computer science alone are not Data Science.

Therefore, we can say that the MSc programme has been created taking into account this interdisciplinarity.

M.F: Yes. The MSC programme has an extremely flexible structure. It is composed of three groups; each one includes two curricular units. Students must be approved in one of each, which will provide them tripartite training, and this is something that we consider essential.

The MSc programme offers more than 40 optional curricular units, of which students have to make another 10 to 12 (depending on the ECTS of the curricular units). The structure is extremely flexible; students can choose the remaining curricular units, as they want, although this choice is subject to validation of course coordinator.
A compulsory curricular unit called “Aplicações de Engenharia e Ciência de Dados” should be finished in the penultimate semester. This is a sort of mini-project, in which students have to apply what they have learnt so far and solve real-world problem using data science.

Does this MSc programme have a very practical component?

M.F: It may also have a strong theoretical component if students wish to do so. They just have to choose several curricular units related to mathematics. Students have a lot of freedom to choose.

The NYU Center for Data Science offers a master’s programme that attracts almost 1500 students. Less than 100 students are admitted. Do you think that this MSc programme will also attract so many students?

M.F: We have only 30 places available this year. I have no idea how many applications we will receive, but I think there will be many students applying. Data science became popular; I get a lot of emails from agricultural engineers and doctors, for example, who liked to do this MSc programme and ask me if there is any chance of doing it after working hours. Unfortunately, there is no such option for now, although many Técnico students are also interested. We estimate that in two years, when the Integrated MSc Programmes at Técnico are no longer be available, the number applications will increase.

Do you think that data are becoming the new raw material for business?

M.F: Yes, data are very important because it contains information that is, perhaps, the most valuable thing for business. For example, knowing what to sell, when, and to whom. Combining data science and sociology is essential because it is also important to understand data. Fortunately, in the future, and as a result of the new teaching model, Técnico students will have curricular units focused on humanities and social sciences, which will be a valuable input.

Are you planning to include these curricular units in this MSc programme?

M.F: Not for now, but I think that in the future it will make sense, at least one curricular unit focused on ethics, because data is important in decision making. There are a number of decisions that used to have a human involvement and now they are automated, which raises some delicate ethical issues.

Do we also have to educate professionals for that matter?

M.F: Well, at least we must make people aware of this problem.

Has data science really become the fourth approach to science discovery, in addition to experimentation, modeling, and computation?

M.F: Yes. Data science is the fourth paradigm of science. It has a very important role in Science today. Any science that involves the analysis of large amounts of data requires Data Science, so it is essential to combine all these areas.

Will data skills be the most valued by employers?

M.F: I usually say that people should have “data literacy”. Working in any area related to data requires a basic knowledge on this field, namely data acquisition, curation, etc. We must be aware of all this so that decisions made from data are grounded and meaningful.

Do you think that this MSc programme is a way of strengthening the training offer at Técnico?

M.F: Yes! I have no doubt.

Top ranked-universities such as Berkeley, MIT, New York or Michigan have opened data science centres in recent years. Do you think that this will happen here, too?

M.F: The people who work in these areas – data science, machine learning – are part of various research units at Técnico, such as INESC-ID, IT, ISR, etc. However, it might be a good idea to create a centre combining all these areas.

There are still not so much MSc programmes at national level. What are the differences between this MSc programme and the others?

M.F: Técnico and the Faculty of Sciences of Universidade de Lisboa have similar MSc programmes in Data Science and Engineering. There are other MSC programmes in this area at national level, but I think that Técnico will stand out.