New Penn center sets sights on solving problems of the digital age

Warren Center

The integration of computers in modern life has led to an explosion in networks and the amount of data flowing through them. This information has enabled the more efficient management of electrical grids, and new research techniques in fields as diverse as sociology, astronomy, and genetics.

But this proliferation of information can be a double-edged sword; social media networks, for example, may have opened the doors to new ways of studying populations, but also raise questions about privacy and the commodification of user data. 

The Warren Center, Penn’s new interdisciplinary research effort to study and address these questions, will officially open at a public event at the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 18, at 3 p.m.

The Center will be led by founding director Michael Kearns, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-director Rakesh Vohra, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and the Department of Economics in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Serving as a complement to the Penn Engineering undergraduate program in Network and Social Systems Engineering, the Center will provide funding in the form of graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, connect faculty and students from different disciplines, and bring in outside experts to advance research in this cutting-edge field. 

“We’re not just going to study networks and the data they generate, but also the thorny social implications that go along with them,” Kearns says.

While the Warren Center will be formally located within Penn Engineering, the broad scope of its problem-oriented mission has attracted 30 inaugural members spanning several schools.

“If you see the same answer coming up when you look at the problem in a number of different ways, it’s probably a good indicator that’s the right answer to the question,” Vohra says.   

The opening ceremony will feature a keynote address by Alvin E. Roth, a professor of economics at Stanford University who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Roth’s Nobel-winning work was on a theory for finding mutually beneficial matches between nodes in complex networks. The theory’s applications include the process medical students use to apply for residencies, as well as a program for finding compatible donors and recipients for kidney transplants.

“We’re planning on funding research projects that, in addition to being scientifically stellar, have some chance of doing social good,” Kearns says. “This was a research project that saved people’s lives.”

Originally published on October 17, 2013