Two years ago the universities of Tilburg and Eindhoven set up the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS) in Den Bosch. To produce data scientists capable not only of analysis, but also of programming and reflecting on ethical issues, and to bring together the researchers of the two founding institutions. Together with Cursor, the magazine of the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, we tried to figure out what this big data showpiece has produced sofar.
North Brabant, a province usually known for its mega animal stalls, pigs, meadows and farms. But in the very near future it should gain a reputation for being the place where entrepreneurial scientists let loose their algorithms on the world’s rapidly growing data mountains. In the heart of the region, within walking distance of Den Bosch central train station and housed in the Mariënburg convent, is the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS). Here, data scientists are being trained. The former Den Bosch convent is the focal point of the cooperation in the field of data science between TU/e, Tilburg University, the province of North Brabant and the municipality of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. A far-reaching cooperation that in the past would have seemed highly improbable.
“These universities are so different from one another, it’s almost impossible to imagine,” says Emile Aarts, since June 2015 Rector Magnificus of Tilburg University, but who has a long history in Eindhoven, a period he concluded as Dean of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. According to Aarts, engineering sciences take center stage in Eindhoven and teams work there on hardware and software systems. In Tilburg legal, economic, and sociological research are the order of the day.
Many years ago, the realization dawned in Eindhoven that they needed to do something with data, but they didn’t have all the necessary expertise in house, says Aarts in a spacious meeting room in the convent building. “A dialogue with Tilburg was started. They ‘clicked'; these universities complement each other.” The choice of Den Bosch as the location was an obvious one: the city had always wanted a university, had suitable premises, and is situated between the two university cities.
A project of this size can carry a financial risk, but it was not long before the financial side of things was secure. The municipality bought and renovated the former convent while the province used innovation funding to pay for pre-investments to get JADS up and running and keep it going. Counterbalancing this investment, which adds up to twenty million euros spread over a ten-year period, is the willingness of the two universities to each invest another twenty million in data science. To make this commitment, says Aarts, the universities won’t even need to pull out their checkbooks: they are using their own people, who would be doing this work anyway.
In the summer of 2016 work got underway readying part of the monumental building for its future users, and in December of that year JADS was officially opened by Queen Maxima. In early April 2018, when we visit the former convent, the building has undergone subsequent renovation work. Aarts is here one half day a week, to see what is going on with his own eyes. Otherwise, the figures and news concerning the developments seem highly abstract. Which is a feeling shared by many back in Tilburg and Eindhoven. Especially since a concise budget did the rounds of the co-determination bodies, showing a shortfall of 4,75 million in 2018 in place of the planned 3.34 million euros.
Expenditure below the line does not mean the universities have to dig deep into their pockets immediately, but does mean the grant pot is emptying more quickly. Nonetheless, the university boards are not worried. Emile Aarts knows that there is more happening in Den Bosch that was foreseen, and so it is only logical that the funds are being spent more rapidly. Eindhoven’s Board President Jan Mengelers shares this view. According to Mengelers, the people in Den Bosch are to be complimented on what they have achieved. He told the members of the Eindhoven University Council some time ago that, in his opinion, the original business plan was in need of an update. In the meantime, the co-determination bodies are left with some questions. In Tilburg this even led to a negative opinion of the budget being given. Eindhoven’s University Council seems to find the situation less problematical, but will nevertheless be paying a visit to their colleagues in Tilburg for further discussions. So what are they actually doing over there in Den Bosch?
“We’ve secured more than we expected,” says Academic Director Arjan van den Born in his office. And by ‘more’ Van den Born means: more students, companies, startups and projects. In a short time, close connections with trade and industry have been forged, which is not to say that a knowledge factory is being set up, that runs to suit the customer’s wishes. “Our research must be fundamental and independent.”
The location offers all kinds of benefits. “JADS could never have worked if it had remained limited to Tilburg and Eindhoven,” says Van den Born. It works because people share a single office or lecture room. “That’s where they start understanding each other.” Students are able to find companies, companies scientists, and so on. By no means unimportant, given that at JADS it is not just students they want to train. Knowledge of data is needed throughout society, and trade and industry is no exception. Accordingly, there is plenty of professional education going on.
Ethics play an important role at JADS, says Van den Born: “That’s all about how you handle data transparently and meticulously, in a confidential manner. We do research, for example, on the transparency of algorithms. Do we really know exactly what it is they do?”
Seated in the former convent are students of the two-year Master’s in Data Science and Entrepreneurship. Much is expected of them, more than just reading books. They must make models, build solutions, develop market strategies, and not be afraid to tackle ethical-legal issues. They receive teaching in the domains of data engineering, mining, decision-making, entrepreneurship, and society. There are overarching courses, in which knowledge is applied to cases taken from trade and industry. And underlying all this is a skills pathway, which starts on day one with an assessment and the allocation of a coach. While it is not mandatory to do so, many students also start their own company.
The courses are often taught by someone from Tilburg and someone from Eindhoven; the same applies to thesis supervision. Datasets are used in almost all courses, says Director of Education Willem Jan van den Heuvel. “If, say, the issue at hand is which privacy model works best for iTunes, we aren’t led by our intuition, but by hard data.” Completing the thesis requires not only writing a paper, but also that a project is delivered for a company (possibly one’s own) or government.
Moreover, the education itself must be innovative in terms of using new learning approaches, says Van den Born. “As a data science institute, you have to set a shining example. And it’s easy to see that often students can no longer summon the motivation to watch a talking head.” Nevertheless, for the time being, talking heads are the hard reality, says senior policy officer for education Carlien Geelkerken. “First of all, we want to have implemented a good curriculum.” That too requires continuous attention. In the early days, for example, there was some overlap. “And we need sponsors, because what we are doing is expensive.” This matter is already being discussed.
JADS has been operational barely two years and is already becoming an industrious epicenter of the science and data science of the future. Admittedly, a number of matters need to be ironed out. Difficulties can be created at times by the two universities having different education regulations, and different rules on employee matters, financing and intellectual property, acknowledges Managing Director Angelique Penners, although she also sees an upside.
Penners: “Despite the two universities being polar opposites, we learn so much time and time and again. And we sometimes have the good fortune of being able to choose the best of both worlds.” Having said that, it is high time we had some rules that apply specifically to the Den Bosch location, says Arjan van den Born. And JADS needs its own department. “That fact that everyone is seconded isn’t working in our favor.” In Tilburg and Eindhoven people sometimes scratch their heads and think where are my colleagues? Oh yes, they are in Den Bosch again.
A student from Eindhoven wouldn’t blink twice at the prospect, but for one from Tilburg it is a novelty: living on campus. Den Bosch offers the chance. There are 77 residential units in the former convent, accommodating 88 people. These are leased by the owners of the building to, among others, lecturers, PhD candidates and others involved in JADS. “This creates a real campus feeling,” says Managing Director Angelique Penners. At night, the lecture rooms and offices are closed to the residents, but in time the premises should be open 24/7.
Emile Aarts also has a couple of wishes of his own. “Until now, JADS has been concerned mainly with regional developments and history. A step needs to be taken towards forming a global vision. What are we contributing, and how?” He would like to have this clarified by 2020, when the organization will have existed for five years and gained some maturity. And the transition must be made from an entrepreneurial mindset, which is necessary in the startup phase, to an approach involving more routine and quality assurance.
This routine is necessary, for example, in dealing with the outside world. JADS is attracting a great deal of attention, and that means telephone calls and emails. Aarts: “Pretty soon people will be saying there’s no point calling JADS because they never pick up the phone.” It’s something they are addressing, says Arjan van den Born. The year 2018 is one for reflection and looking ahead. The organization has grown from seven to a hundred and fifty people and a lot of progress is being made. He is keen to continue growing and to establish processes, but also wants to look closely at what has been achieved and determine its quality.
Which way forward? The first thing to do is increase student numbers. “There are companies who are keen to take five hundred interns a year from us,” says Van der Born. “We don’t have that many yet, and besides the students first have to graduate.” But once this has been achieved, the future looks bright. The first cohort of graduates each have five placements to choose from.
Univers wrote about JADS with Han Konings, general editor at Cursor, the magazine of the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven.
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