This summer, we opened a new chapter in the University’s academic history when we welcomed the inaugural class of students in our Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) program. The MSDS is a newly created 11-month professional program that trains students to meet the needs of industry and government in the era of Big Data—the term commonly used to describe the massive, complex data sets that are realities of our modern lives. Developing tools to secure, manage, mine, and manipulate these data sets has become a global priority, and our MSDS students will be equipped for leadership in this field.

Forty-nine students are enrolled in the inaugural MSDS class this year, and we are developing plans for an undergraduate minor in data science and eventually a Ph.D. program. We know there is a demand for students trained in this field. A recent report estimated that there will be 4.4 million jobs created to support Big Data by 2015.

The MSDS program is administered through our new Data Science Institute, one of the first tangible products of UVA’s new strategic plan, the Cornerstone Plan, which we created with input from stakeholders across the UVA community. The plan calls for us to create a series of pan-University research institutes over the next several years to focus on pressing global issues.

The Data Science Institute is truly pan-University, bringing together faculty and students in computation, science, law, engineering, mathematics, statistics, commerce, social science, humanities and other fields. With our Honor Code and system of student self-governance, UVA is uniquely qualified to address the ethical considerations that arise with the analysis and interpretation of Big Data. UVA systems and information engineering professor Don Brown is the Institute’s founding director.

The Data Science Institute—and the other multidisciplinary research institutes that will eventually follow—will allow our faculty to collaborate on research of shared interest and global relevance, while generating new curricula, degree programs, minors, and certificate programs for students.

Data science is enabling our faculty to tackle real-world problems. In one example, systems and information engineering professor Matthew Gerber, who conducts research in UVA’s Predictive Technology Lab, used Big Data to help predict crime. He gathered more than 1.5 million public Tweets tagged with GPS coordinates in Chicago between the months of January and March in 2013. Simultaneously, he collected data on all documented crimes during the same period in the same area. He found that criminals often say things in their Tweets that can be used to determine when and where crimes will happen next.

So he developed a computer algorithm that sifts through about 800,000 Tweets at a time, separating them by their GPS coordinates into neighborhoods. He then analyzed the Tweets in each neighborhood to determine what people in the vicinity were Tweeting. He compared this data to historical crime data for the same locations, and used the correlations to predict crime in these neighborhoods.

Mr. Gerber’s research improved predictions for 19 of 25 types of crimes that happened last year in metropolitan Chicago, and his project has now drawn the interest of police departments in New York and other cities. This research shows how Big Data can be channeled toward the public good.

UVA’s preeminence in data science is helping us attract corporate partners. This past spring, we announced that UVA will join an academic initiative with IBM to create new data science curricula. This partnership means our students will have access to the latest data science and analytics-focused technology, hardware, case studies and guest lecturers, and they will have opportunities to network with peers and leaders in the field. We have also received support for the MSDS capstone program from Capital One, Northrup Grumman and Mitre, while many other companies have expressed interest in partnering with us.

Donors have stepped up to support this strategic initiative. In January, we received a major gift from alumnus Jaffray Woodriff (Com ’91), a Charlottesville financial manager who built his firm on the disciplined and creative use of original data-science methods. Mr. Woodriff pledged $10 million through his private foundation to create an endowment to support the Data Science Institute. More recent commitments from other donors have given us additional momentum, as we move aggressively forward with this initiative.

What would the University’s founder think of our pioneering work in data science? It seems certain that Thomas Jefferson would be intrigued and delighted by the possibilities inherent in the field. He often used the phrase “useful science” to argue that all knowledge should be applied to improve the world and to better the human condition. Faculty and students in the Data Science Institute are extending this Jeffersonian ethos as they address some of the most vexing issues in our data-intensive, Tweet-filled modern world.