Yahoo and UC Berkeley on Tuesday debuted the Internet giant’s new Berkeley lab, where students will work alongside Yahoo employees to try to make the search engine more responsive to individual tastes.
The 10,000-square-foot lab at 1950 University Ave. is the third of UC Berkeley’s corporate partnerships to spawn an off-campus research lab in downtown Berkeley. City officials hope Yahoo’s presence in the privately owned building, in offices formerly occupied by the financial firm Barra, will bolster a downtown still beset by empty storefronts.
“Having a world-famous organization set up a research lab in downtown Berkeley is in and of itself important,” said David Fogarty of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. He predicted similar partnerships would emerge from a recent city-UC settlement over the university’s expansion plans.
The lab, which opened in August, will focus on making it simpler for web surfers to post pictures, stories, videos and music to the Internet.
“This is about ending the tyranny of the webmaster,” said Marc Davis, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems, who has taken leave to become the founding director of Yahoo Research Labs Berkeley.
Davis said he wanted to add context to the data on the Internet to expand the capabilities of the Yahoo search engine. Rather than just offering information based on priorities determined by a webmaster, Yahoo is working to customize each search for users by analyzing where they are connected on the Internet and what their on-line activity is.
Such information would then be available for self-created community groups on the Yahoo portal, so when members run searches they will receive data most relevant to their interests first.
Yahoo has hired several interns from UC Berkeley to help staff the lab. The company, which is still hiring full-time staff, declined to say how many workers would be stationed in Berkeley or how much money it was investing in the facility. Yahoo also has research labs in Pasadena and at its headquarters in Sunnyvale.
Danah Boyd, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student and lab intern, said the lab’s biggest benefit for students has been getting access to Yahoo’s 176 million registered users.
“Yahoo has obscene amounts of data,” she said. “If you’re an academic you usually get to work with maybe six people who you rope into the project by offering them pizza.”
Student researchers will also analyze user trends to determine how to make the media technology accessible to different types of users.
“This will be the greatest instant feedback machine on the planet,” said Usama Fayyad, Yahoo’s Chief Data Officer.
Yahoo will have first commercial rights to research at the lab, said Dana Bostrom, associate director of UC Berkeley’s Industry Alliances Office. She added that the partnership with Yahoo wouldn’t preclude the university from striking deals with the company’s competitors.
Besides Yahoo, UC Berkeley has partnered with Intel on a computer lab at Center Street and Shattuck Avenue, and with a German nonprofit to form the International Computer Science Institute on Center Street. Bostrom said having an off-campus facility is unusual and that she didn’t know of any similar partnerships under discussion.
The lab is Yahoo’s first partnership with a university, but it won’t be the last, Fayyad said.
“It’s important [for Yahoo] to have new blood coming in and for us to show them that Yahoo is doing deep and interesting research,” he said.
Yahoo’s chief competitor, Google, is well connected to Stanford. The company’s founders attended the school and Stanford President John Hennessy sits on Google’s board of directors.
The Berkeley lab originated from a speaker series earlier this year when Davis addressed Yahoo executives with his vision of the future of Internet searches.
“It resonated so deeply with us that we wouldn’t let him out of the building,” said Yahoo’s Director of Technology Development Bradley Horowitz.
The city will still be able to collect taxes on the property, which is privately owned and rented by Yahoo. University-owned property is off the tax rolls—a major source of city-university tension.