Ten Years In - The Science of the World Wide Web

Posted November 15, 2016

We can look at the World Wide Web from the perspective of mathematics through network science, or the perspective of infrastructure through computer science; but to truly understand the interactions between technology and society found on the web, we need web science. That’s the argument Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor James Hendler makes in an article published in the current edition of Science on the “Science of the World Wide Web.”

Hendler is in a position to speak: as head of Rensselaer’s Information Technology (IT) program in 2010, he helped create the IT and Web Science (ITWS) program – the first undergraduate web science program in the United States. Hendler is now the director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), a campuswide institute that supports data-centric, interdisciplinary activities. IDEA enables research across campus to develop data across Rensselaer’s five schools.

Hendler co-authored the Science perspective with Professor Dame Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, England. Hall and Hendler are among the founders of the web science field, and the article discusses 10 years of work they, and others, have been doing since the founding of the field.

“Rensselaer is a model for the pursuit of web science in the ease with which faculty and students can work across traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Hendler said. “And when you look at the breadth of inquiry that’s come out of Rensselaer, you can see that web science spans a wide swatch of academia. For example, we’ve had doctoral dissertations on support for computational ethnography, on expectation-based policies for privacy on the web, and on exploring how the semantic web’s linked data challenges traditional notions of data use and the biases thereof.”

As Hendler and Hall discuss, web science is a “socio-technical” field, one that combines the technologies of the web with the social science perspectives necessary to understand the interactions between online activities and social impacts. At Rensselaer, the IT and Web Science program, now headed by Peter Fox, Tetherless World Professor and professor of earth and environmental sciences, is a key contributor to  The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for higher education which recognizes that global challenges and opportunities are so complex they cannot be addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration — working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions, to address global challenges — and addresses some of the world’s most pressing technological challenges, from energy security and sustainable development to biotechnology and human health. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

Rensselaer first offered a graduate degree as part of the Information Technology program in the late 1990s, and offered the nation’s first undergraduate degree in Information Technology and Web Science in 2010. Students in the program learn about the physical science underlying the web and the social science of its impact, as well as the skills involved in running large-scale information systems, developing web applications, and dealing with the social and policy implications of IT and web deployments. The program centers on a core set of courses on web and IT development and management, with 10 concentrations in academic disciplines from arts to engineering.

One recent outgrowth of the web science focus of the ITWS program is a concentration in Information Dominance, first created to prepare officers of the U.S. Navy for careers designing, building, and managing secure information systems and networks. Topics of study include encryption and network security, formal models, secure coding techniques, policies and ethics for access control in databases and application systems, and other related information assurance and transparency topics. The combination of coursework provides comprehensive coverage of issues and solutions for using high-assurance systems in tactical decision-making.

“Web science has become an increasingly important area at Rensselaer,” said Hendler. “An increasing number of faculty from across the campus are getting involved in our educational and research program in web science, and my colleagues Peter Fox and Deborah McGuinness are recognized as experts in the field. In fact, they are co-chairing the International Web Science conference to be held here in Troy next June – it’s a great acknowledgment of the recognition we have been receiving as a leader in this emerging area.”

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering; the sciences; information technology and web sciences; architecture; management; and the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Rensselaer faculty advance research in a wide range of fields, with an emphasis on biotechnology, nanotechnology, computational science and engineering, data science, and the media arts and technology. The Institute has an established record of success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, fulfilling its founding mission of applying science “to the common purposes of life.” For more information, please visit http://www.rpi.edu.