Data, Systems, and Society

IDSS brings mathematical, behavioral, and empirical sciences together to tackle societal problems.

Video and photo by Lillie Paquette; Written by Carolyn Blais

Data is good. More data is better. And understanding how to use and make sense of large amounts of data is paramount. Munther Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor and Director of the Institute for Data, Systems and Society, knows that data collection and analysis has many, practical implications that can benefit the world.

“We have a new revolution now where societies in general are generating real-time data that is driving the systems that we operate in,” says Dahleh. Designing the kinds of systems that can make use of the data is critical work and will continue to be for centuries to come.

While we have access to much data as it is, Dahleh reasons that access to even more data will lead to greater research. We need to understand the “connection between the technical aspect of things and the social aspect of things,” he says. And societal challenges exist among almost every industry: “energy, or transportation, or in finance, or health or communication, or in many different parts of the world, societal challenges are in terms of freedom, and dictatorships, and elections, and so forth,” Dahleh explains. Building a bridge that will connect engineering, science and social science will help us to understand more comprehensive data sets that can be used to alleviate many of these societal challenges.

As technology progresses and humans and machines start to coexist more and more, Dahleh says that we will need to think about not only the system itself, but also about the person interacting with the system, and we will need to think about these two things simultaneously. Therefore, MIT students of the near future will need to be able to think both analytically and altruistically. Dahleh is hopeful about this change in education and student way of thinking: “There’s a research value, but there’s a human value, and I think the human value is going to be great.”



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