Jack Williams

Credentials: Professor and Chair, Department of Geography; Faculty Affiliate, Center for Climactic Research

Position title: Department of Geography

Email: jwwilliams1@wisc.edu

Modern-day climate change is expected to radically transform ecosystems. Jack Williams studies the geological record, gleaning understanding from the past to inform current efforts to help plant communities adapt to a changing climate. When climates change, species move.

Jack leads the Neotoma Paleoecology Database. With millions of observations from 20,000 geological records around the world, this database makes it possible for researchers to study how species—from giant mammoths to microscopic ancient DNA—have responded to past climate change. Working with Neotoma’s enormous volume of heterogeneous data is a tremendous challenge, requiring both flexible data-handling systems and distributed systems of scientific data governance. Jack collaborates with a team of data scientists, including Research Scientist Simon Goring, to develop common standards and build the trust needed for scientists to share their data through Neotoma.

Data science makes it easier to share and glean insights from data. While environmental data is increasingly findable, interoperable, and reusable, Jack says there is still a great deal of work to do on the ethical side of data sharing. How do you make data accessible to everyone, while including and respecting the communities where it originated? Jack and his collaborators recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to improve shared practices for community-curated data resources and engage Indigenous communities in learning more about their data sovereignty and sharing needs.

“One of the things I’m excited about is building a community of data scientists at UW-Madison. I’m really excited to have the Data Science Institute as a common ground and place where we can start to connect with each other and build a community of practice here.”