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Can Data Science Help Us Solve Economic Problems?

August 30, 2018

For Immediate Release
Media Contact: Sophia N. Johnson, sj2482@columbia.edu, 212-854-1566

Research show data science and widespread availability of data are changing the economy.

The economic issues generated by data in the global economy will likely have a profound effect on economic research. According to Suresh Naidu, associate professor in the Department of Economics, data is a strategic asset in today’s economy. “Data science and widespread availability of data are changing the economy as well as what we can measure, and economists are excited about that. However, there are widespread concerns about issues like who should own the data and also data driven price discrimination,” explains Professor Naidu.  “The concentration of data in the five big tech companies—Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook—raises a lot of questions for economists,” says Naidu. These companies both make up half of the top 10 most valuable companies in the American stock market and influence just about everything else that happens in tech, as well as the rest of the global economy.  “We are generally concerned about concentration in this sector,” he continues.

 Data for Good

Jeannette M. Wing is on a mission to push the frontiers of research in this field in the right direction. “The Data Science Institute at Columbia University is training the next generation of data scientists and developing innovative technology to serve society,” says Wing, computer science professor and Avanessians director of the Data Science Institute. “This idea of responsibility is very timely right now.  We want to make sure the computational techniques and methods we are inventing are really doing the right thing. Do no harm. We want to make sure it’s fair and ethical,” she continues.

The Data Science Institute at Columbia has a three-part mission that encapsulates the great promise this new field has to improve the quality of life for all. “Our mission is to advance the state-of-the-art in data science; to transform all fields, professions, and sectors through the application of data science; and, to ensure the responsible use of data to benefit society,” explains Wing, whose seminal essay, titled “Computational Thinking,” was published more than a decade ago and is credited with helping to establish the centrality of computer science to problem-solving in fields where previously it had not been embraced. “Responsible use of data is really the opportunity for the social scientists on campus to work side by side and closely with the science and engineering community.  The professional schools like journalism, law, business, and medicine all teach ethics to their students. It’s part of the training so you learn ethical concerns about treating patients, or your customers, or business clients. This is just part of your training, and I think we need to do that for data science because people are going to be collecting and analyzing data about people, and all of a sudden you have to start asking ethical questions.

With more than 250 affiliated faculty working in a wide range of disciplines, the Institute seeks to foster collaboration in advancing techniques to gather and interpret data and to address the urgent problems facing society. The Institute works closely with industry to bring promising ideas to market. “I think universities and academia’s responsibility is training the next generation of students who are business leaders and tech entrepreneurs who are going to be building the technology.  We need to make sure that as they are armed with the advances in technology, that they are asking the right questions from an ethical and social point of view,” explains Wing. “Data for good means two things: One is in terms of using data to benefit society, but tackling societal wide challenges; but I also mean making sure we use data in a good manner or responsible, fair, and ethical manner,” she adds.  “Big data, data analytics, machine learning, and so on are the new techniques and tools that can be added to this repertoire that economist can use,” says Wing. “I would love to say in ten years, looking back, that Columbia University was a place that helped define the field of data science,” notes Wing.  Naidu agrees. “Data science can help economists solve societal issues, both big and small. New kinds of data and analytic tools help us know more about how the economy works and how it is changing.

Suresh Naidu is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics.  His research focuses on Development Economics, Labor Economics, Political Economy.  He holds a B.Math in pure mathematics (distinction) from the University of Waterloo, M.A. in economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Ph.D. in economics University of California, Berkeley.

About Columbia | Economics

The Department of Economics offers a general economics major, in addition to five interdisciplinary majors structured to suit the interests and professional goals of a heterogeneous student body.  All of the undergraduate programs have different specific requirements but share the common structure of core theoretical courses that provide the foundation for higher-level elective courses culminating in a senior seminar.  Graduate students receive training within an outstanding research environment, supported by members of faculty who are leading research in their fields.

In 2017, the Department offered 42 undergraduate courses.  A total of 4765 students were enrolled, 742 in the Department’s majors.  The M.A. program provides a technical and rigorous approach to the study of economics.  In addition, the doctoral program receives approximately 1,000 applications each year for an incoming class of roughly 25 students.  The Department has played a prominent role in the development of economic thought.  It will continue to through its faculty and students, and contribute to a better understanding of economic activities and the elaboration of policy.

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1022 International Affairs Building (IAB)

Mail Code 3308

420 West 118th Street

New York, NY 10027

Ph: (212) 854-3680
Fax: (212) 854-0749
Business Hours:
Mon–Fri, 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.