Bill Howe brings his data expertise to the iSchool, where he belongs

Bill Howe is a database wonk, adept at finding meaning in a mountain of data and building systems to help others do the same.

But he’s also concerned about using and sharing data responsibly, working to ensure that new technology has the broadest possible social impact.  That’s what attracted him to the University of Washington’s eScience Institute, which applies data science techniques to real-world problems across all fields of science and engineering.

Colleagues across the UW campus kept telling him the same thing: His people-centered approach to technology and data made him a perfect fit for the Information School. Eventually, he took the hint.

Howe joins the iSchool this fall as an associate professor. His expertise in databases, data management, and scalable algorithms will reinforce and complement the school’s strengths in data curation, data science and human-computer interaction.

Howe’s impact is evident in the numerous hats he wears at the UW. He’ll continue to serve as associate director of the eScience Institute; meanwhile, he’s an adjunct professor with the Computer Science & Engineering department and chair of the university’s new Master of Science in Data Science program.

The common thread to all of his work: applicability. “The idea that you’re going to go out there and use this stuff to actually do something,” he said.

After earning his Ph.D. in 2007, Howe spent his next few years working to wrangle data associated with the hard sciences – traditionally data-heavy fields such as astronomy, microbiology and oceanography. The social sciences, however, seemed to present slightly different challenges around managing sensitive data, empowering non-experts to participate in the data conversation, and collaborating with urban planners and public policy makers to translate results into impact.

Howe turned his attention to these problems, organizing programs and projects to use data to address issues in transportation, housing, and using technology to achieve more livable and efficient cities – things that affect everyone on a daily basis.

“In Seattle there’s a lot of excitement around how we can use data science and open data to help make cities more livable and equitable,” he said. “The solutions that are needed build on the work I was doing in the physical and life sciences, so it was a natural area to move into.”

Howe said he is looking forward to working with iSchool students who share his passion for using data for social good. He will teach data science and database courses in the 2016-17 academic year and help shape the school’s database curriculum. It’s an emerging field with a host of challenges for students to consider.

“There are technical problems around managing sensitive data. There’s a lot of attention on privacy, but there are also issues of fairness and accountability and transparency,” Howe said.

A native of Atlanta, Howe earned his bachelor’s degree at Georgia Tech before moving west to pursue his Ph.D. at Portland State University. He has been at the UW since 2009, when he joined the eScience Institute as a senior research scientist and the Computer Science & Engineering department as an affiliate professor.

Along with his work focusing on responsible uses of data, he co-founded Urban@UW, which seeks to make Seattle a model for inclusive innovation. With iSchool Assistant Professor Jevin West, he also leads the Viziometrics project, which aims to build better tools for navigating the visual information in scholarly publications in order to get more value out of scientific data.

Howe’s strengths in databases and data management make him a great fit for the iSchool, Dean Harry Bruce said.

“I am excited to have Bill join the iSchool,” Bruce said. “There is great alignment between his scholarship and the iSchool’s areas of strategic visibility. His core expertise will amplify the iSchool’s strengths across the field of information.”

Howe said he’s excited about the prospect of collaborating with his new colleagues, particularly working with the iSchool’s DataLab, which studies large-scale datasets in an effort to use them for the public good.

“I’m interested in shifting more toward applications, impact, and harder social problems,” Howe said. “That’s where I was headed, and there’s already a place doing that kind of work, and it’s right here on campus at the iSchool.”