Building a ‘data science playground’ across countries

Data rules the world—or at least it took up residence in the governing chambers of Serbia when four data scientists from Temple University joined about 600 international researchers—plus 200 others following along via livestreaming—in Belgrade. The US-Serbia and West Balkan Data Science Workshop included 35 invited lectures, 101 poster presentations and three panels devoted to interdisciplinary and international data science collaboration. The event was co-sponsored by the US National Science Foundation and the Ministry of Science and Education in Serbia and was chaired by Zoran Obradović, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Data Analytics at Temple.

Obradović, a Serbian native who is director of Temple’s Data Analytics and Biomedical Informatics Center, says the three-day event in August came out of a desire to help connect disparate cultures and areas of expertise.

“We want to establish new interdisciplinary and international collaborations between hardcore data scientists like me and academics in other disciplines—and not just senior researchers but early investigators and graduate students, too,” he says. “We even had a high school student from the US in attendance.” 

One successful data science-related research collaboration between the US and Serbia is the dual PhD program agreement between Temple and two Serbian universities. The program’s first doctoral degree was awarded recently to Ivan Stojkovic, for a dual PhD in computer and information sciences at Temple and in electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade.

Building on a 2010 agreement between Serbia and the US that promotes scientific and technological cooperation, the science workshop had the hallmarks of a meeting between world leaders. The event took place in the historic halls where, in 1961, Nehru, Tito and other leaders established the non-alignment movement representing nearly two-thirds of the United Nations. Attendees also dined in the still-active Royal Palace and the residence of the US ambassador.  Serbian television crews were on hand throughout the meeting as the national network aired specials on data science.

The meeting consisted of four tracks: data science foundations, biomedical informatics, data science applications in critical infrastructures, and digital archaeology—a critical inclusion, given the conference’s setting near Viminacium, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire. The site contains remains of temples, amphitheaters, palaces and Roman baths as well as the largest number of ancient graves discovered in any Roman archeological site (about 20,000). Viminacium may hold the genetic answers to many questions about human biology and history, a topic addressed by the meeting’s speakers and panels.

“Serbia was a major cradle of migration between Asia, Europe and Africa, and provides an unprecedented snapshot of human diversity in ancient times,” says Rob Kulathinal, Temple associate professor of biology, who presented one of the keynote talks in the biomedical informatics track. In the wake of the meeting, Kulathinal has proposed creating a living laboratory on the site and is now seeking funding to support ongoing research.

Obradović is working toward similar platforms for joint research in other track areas, including a power systems laboratory to develop predictive frameworks for monitoring the resilience of vital infrastructure. He’s also establishing a summer school project to encourage more connections and education. The meeting, he says, was just the starting point for these efforts.

“We’re building a data science playground,” explains Obradović, “and we want to encourage people to get out of their comfort zones and play there, too.”

-Elisa Ludwig