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July 3, 2019

KDD 2019 to Rally Big Data Experts Around the Environment on Its First ‘Earth Day’

Oliver Peckham

KDD – the annual ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining – will, for the first time, include an Earth Day, aiming to “bring together thought leaders in academia, industry and government to … discuss opportunities to overcome the challenges that Earth faces today.”

Dr. Vipin Kumar

Dr. Vipin Kumar – one of KDD 2019’s General Chairs (and a regents professor and holder of the William Norris Chair at the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota) — was central to the decision to include the Earth Day in this year’s conference. He also has an extensive background working at the exact intersection that KDD 2019 aims to highlight; Kumar recently completed a five-year, $10 million project called “Understanding Climate Change – A Data Driven Approach,” which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Speaking with Datanami, Kumar discussed the intersections between the earth and data sciences and highlighted his hopes for this year’s conference.

Big Data and the Fate of the World

“One of the biggest contributions of computing so far … has been in providing the computing software and the computing architectures that are used to simulate the earth system and its environment,” said Kumar. 

But significant shortcomings remain. “There are gaps – and there are massive gaps,” elaborated Kumar. He highlights the problem of resolving clouds in weather and climate models: researchers could theoretically do it using current methods – if they had hundreds of thousands times more computing capacity. Kumar estimates that at several decades away. 

“You can’t wait for that long,” Kumar said. “Humanity has been around for a few million years, and certainly we should expect to be around millions of years later. But the question now is: are we going to be around in a thousand years? Are we going to be around in five hundred years?” 

Kumar sees this as an opportunity for data scientists to bridge those gaps using new methodologies. “Broadly speaking, the fields of data mining, data science, knowledge discovery and machine learning [have] evolved tremendously over the period of the last four or five decades,” he continued. “The confluence of all of the advances are showing promise to fill the gaps [in climate science] that people have not been able to fill. This is not something that a computer scientist is saying – this is something you will hear – more and more – from the climate science community.” 

“There’s a tremendous excitement that these technologies have a big role to play,” he said. “There is so much that the KDD community can do to answer these challenges.”

Starting a Big (Data) Conversation About Earth at KDD 2019

KDD 2019’s Earth Day will have several intensive workshops, including workshops on urban computing, theory-guided data science in the earth sciences, and data mining and AI for conservation. It will also feature two panels and two sessions, with one of each focused on data mining and another focused on the value of Earth data. The day is rounded out by a keynote from Dr. Ramakrishna Nemani of NASA Earth Exchange.

“Most people who come to this conference haven’t had a chance to think about how their work could potentially help the environment, and this is our way of introducing to them both the challenges and the opportunities,” said Kumar. “People will be able to come and see, perhaps, for themselves as to what we as humanity have done to the planet in the last few hundred years – and also get a sense as to what they could do to answer these challenges.”

To hammer the point home, KDD will be held in Alaska. “We thought that Alaska would be a perfect place,” explained Kumar, “because the changes from the recent warming of the planet are most visible on the two poles.”

Kumar hopes that attendees will not only go back with an understanding that they should try to address these challenges, but also will find themselves enriched as researchers.

About KDD 2019

KDD 2019 will be held from August 4-8, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska. For more information on KDD 2019’s Earth Day, follow this link. For registration information, follow this link.

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