Eleanor Mattern in a black shirt, with a blurred out Oakland in the background
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The information steward

  • Technology & Science
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • School of Computing and Information

This past academic year, the Year of Engagement taught us the value of staying connected during difficult times and the importance of collaboration. As that campaign culminates, the University of Pittsburgh Office of the Provost has announced that the 2021-22 academic year will be the Year of Data and Society.

The Year Of at Pitt is entering its eighth year of elevating important topics of universal interest across the Pitt community. Past Year Of initiatives have taken deep dives on themes ranging from diversity and sustainability to our health and global impact. Through prolonged focus, the Year Of has challenged how we incorporate creativity into our daily lives and heightened our understanding of the humanities at the University.

Though plans for the Year of Data and Society are still in the early phases of development, Eleanor Mattern, director of the Sara Fine Institute and teaching assistant professor in the School of Computing and Information, has been named campaign chair. In that role, Mattern and a committee of University stakeholders will create opportunities for all members of the Pitt community to engage, explore and experience the Year Of.

Pittwire reached out to Mattern (SCI ’14G) to learn more about her, her career and her vision for the Year of Data and Society. Watch for more details about the year, including grant opportunities, in the coming months.

Tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I'm from Pennsylvania but from the other side of the state; I grew up in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. I first came to Pittsburgh a little over than 10 years ago to study here at the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school, and then I entered the School of Information Sciences (now the School of Computing and Information), where I completed a PhD in library and information science.

What kept you in Pittsburgh?

I was fortunate to build a wonderful community network here for myself. When I moved to Pittsburgh, I think what was immediately apparent to me was that there was an awesome cultural scene here. And as a museum lover, I was impressed by the phenomenal museums in the city. (Students: Access many of the city’s museums for free with your Pitt ID.)

But what really struck me and made me fall in love with Pittsburgh was the libraries. They really energize me.

So it seems natural that you would build a career in library science.

It does. I came to Pitt after spending some time working in museums. With the complexity of that work, I had lingering questions that I was interested in exploring, and I wanted to build up my understanding of how university library systems could assist in managing the data that was being produced at the University.

Once I completed my PhD program, I began to focus on issues around preservation and archives and how we were stewarding digital data that was namely coming out of research and research projects or that was being produced as large data sets. So I was really excited when I had an opportunity to join the University Library System at Pitt and really home in on my understanding in that area.

What type of data support does the library system provide?

In the eyes of a library scientist, everything is data — I think that's important for the University community to be aware of.
 There’s physical data, textual data and the type of data that humanists are engaged with as well as perhaps more computational data sets that are being produced. So libraries are very much focused on discovering ways we can create services to support these varying data needs.

When I joined the library system, Aaron Brenner, associate University librarian for digital scholarship and creation, was leading an effort to build up a unit called digital scholarship services. At the time, there was a growing requirement to provide data to research funders. Through the service, the library system was able to support the Pitt community and to make its data sets available to outside entities in a form that would be meaningful and usable while simultaneously keeping the data safe.

Why is data safety important?

When you collect large amounts of data, it must be managed in a way that the data is protected. Safeguards should be put in place to determine who has access to the data and the best way to share data. While I’m not a data privacy expert, there are many folks at Pitt who are, and we hope to bring them in over the course of the year to develop innovative strategies and technologies that build awareness around how we can instill responsible data practices that are respectful of people's privacy.

Are these the types of topics you hope to address through the Year Of?

Absolutely. I'm conscious of the fact that the Pitt community is composed of diverse populations who are interested in socially responsible data practices and also the societal community-centered issues around data. We’ll be inviting folks from across the University to represent all parts of our university.

It's important for us to keep in mind that this is the Year of Data and Society, so we're interested in the ways that data is impacting our communities and individuals’ lives. So it's not strictly taking a looking at data through a technology lens but looking at it through a societal one.

As chair, what impact do you want the Year of Data and Society to have on the Pitt community?

The vision will be set by the campaign committee, which should be formed by mid-June, but my goals for the Year Of are to build awareness that we have the ability — as students, faculty and staff — to practice socially responsible data work and to ensure that when we collect, analyze and share data, we do so in ways that serve and benefit our communities.

Additionally, I want the Year Of grants to support our academic programs in building education and curriculum in areas of ethics, social responsibility and the impact of data on society. This can help to ensure that our engagement in these areas over this year persists and that we prepare socially responsible data practitioners here at Pitt.

One final question: Sheetz or Wawa?

Sheetz! I love their sandwiches.