By James Whitlow

For The Diamondback

While at the University of Maryland as a doctoral student, DJ Patil exploited a small hole in the mathematics department’s computer system to take over every computer on its network.

Fourteen years later, Patil landed a job in 2015 as the first U.S. chief data scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Friday, he came to this university’s Physical Sciences Complex to address about 120 students, faculty and alumni Friday on the future of data science.

“Data science is a team sport,” Patil said. “When we get involved, we make change.”

Patil discussed how students can make a difference in the burgeoning field at an annual lecture sponsored by the computer, mathematical and natural sciences college. Because the term “data science” defies vocational boundaries — relating to computer science, statistics and other types of mathematics — he and others created the discipline to more accurately reflect their work, he said.

President Obama appointed Patil to address all data-related issues in February 2015. He said the White House needed someone to maximize the benefits of several types of data the government handles, including police, medical and community data.

During the hourlong lecture, Patil stressed the need for a collaboration between the government and other institutions like universities and private companies, explaining that if those entities were to join forces, they could foster change in communities. But there has been little in the way of joint efforts, he said.

“There’s just no collaboration,” he said. “You need to have seminal projects that bring people together.”

Patil encouraged university students to take action and think of themselves as empowered to solve problems. The most effective way to spark change is through the government — and engaging the government can be tough, he said.

“People who have ideas, you can’t just come talk to the government,” he said. “You have to jump into the government.”

Patil said data analysis can be used to benefit local communities, such as Prince George’s County. Prince George’s County is like “a different world,” he said, and university students can make an effort to improve it.

Analyzing information such as the types of crimes police officers respond to can paint a better picture of accountability and potentially make the community safer, he said.

“It’s not rocket science,” Patil said. “This is pure common sense when we just start to ask basic questions.”

Patil graduated from this university in 2001 with a doctorate in applied mathematics and has worked for organizations such as PayPal, LinkedIn, Skype and eBay.

Andrea Morris, the department’s associate dean of external relations, said that some students who have attended these lectures in the past have changed their course of studies.

“I’m hoping people will leave today and consider a career, maybe in public service, maybe where they wouldn’t have yesterday,” she said Friday. “There are so many benefits to having these kinds of talks.”

Morris added that this university has to engage with the government and the College Park community to create the change needed. While the university has an advantage in being so close to Washington, it could strengthen its ties with the government, she said.

“We are not maximized yet,” Morris said. “We are certainly engaged; we’re just not fully maximized to what we could be doing.”

Andrew Lauziere, a senior economics and mathematics major, said Patil’s take on data science and data-driven solutions was important to hear because he is considering a career in machine learning and data science.

“It was good to hear [Patil’s] perspective on things,” he said. “I wanted to hear about what it was like for him to work with all this data and be in such a position of power to make change.”