What do the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), researchers, business leaders, human rights advocates, and privacy experts have in common? They all care about big data. Though it doesn’t have a legal definition, the term big data commonly refers to large and complex data sets. With stronger than ever computing power, big data can be analyzed using algorithms to identify new patterns and draw inferences about people’s interests and behavior.
The use of big data is still in its nascent stages. As such, the FTC posed the question of whether or not this data is a tool for inclusion or exclusion at an all-day convening on September 15. In her opening remarks, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez points out that 90 percent of the world’s data have been created in the last two years. Big data has the potential to save lives, improve education, enhance government services, and boost economic productivity. On the other hand, it has the capacity to reinforce existing disadvantages experienced by low-income individuals and minority groups. Ramirez is interested in how steps can be taken to level the playing field.
Principal Researcher for Microsoft Research and New York University Professor danah boyd asks how we make sense of fairness, equality, and equity in a big data world. Part of the answer depends on how laws currently on the books apply to big data uses. For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which gives consumers the opportunity to access and correct information that makes up their credit score.
In her remarks, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill emphasized that it would do its part to enforce existing laws, like FCRA. But see added that more transparency is needed around how data brokers are using sensitive characteristics, like health conditions, and that steps should be taken to inform consumers about how this information is being used and stop inappropriate uses. In closing, Brill stated, “All players can take steps right now to address potential discriminatory use of algorithms.”
How Does Big Data Relate to Education?
While conversations among panelists largely focused on the impact of big data in a consumer setting, SAS Senior Vice President Gene Gsell offered an example of how big data can be used to attain better education outcomes.
SAS worked with North Carolina to develop new ways to identify students ready to take algebra in the eighth grade. Previously, only students with a teacher recommendation were able to take the course. Using these additional indicators, the state identified 20 percent more students to take the course than teacher recommendations alone. Gsell points out that of these 20 percent additional students, 97 percent succeeded. In short, big data helped get more students into advanced level coursework and these students were overwhelmingly successful.
There was another interesting question raised at the workshop: When is big data a new information tool and when are people just talking about cases of good scientific research? The effective use of data in education has been going on for years. Here are some success stories about the use of data in education:
On several occasions, representatives of the FTC asked experts, “So what do we do next?” Chief Investigative Counsel and Director of Oversight Kristin Armstrong of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation pointed to the need for a legal definition of big data. In addition, there’s a need to address the tension between the urgency for more transparency about how individuals’ data are being used and the ability of private companies to protect their “secret sauce,” or trade secrets. It’s also clear that these kinds of cross-sector dialogues must continue. And the FTC will continue to play a critical role in this work.
Throughout the day, several recent papers and reports were referenced:
Jason Nicewicz is an intern with the Data Quality Campaign’s Federal Policy team.
A group of seven research centers recently released a joint report indicating areas of potential improvement for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative (MBK), a program organized by President Obama to address the achievement gap among minority students. The report highlights recommendations to address inequity across the education pipeline. Many of the recommendations emphasize data as a way to improve overall program initiatives:
Implement a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) dataset that would track students from pre-K through their postsecondary education. NCES would then be able to use these data to provide insight into enrollment, retention, and graduation trends. This documentation is crucial, as it would help identify emerging trends in the education process as well as recognize challenges and opportunities related to educational achievement.
Create a data-tracking system to identify schools with disproportionately high suspension and special education rates. With this implemented system, districts could investigate whether or not schools are creating what is called a “student push out,” where minority students are more likely to be suspended over extended periods of time. This plan would also include the implementation of an equity score card program, recognizing schools with comprehensive programs that kept minority students in the classroom.
Create an institutional-level early warning system." This would allow for students to recognize areas of weakness early in the academic term. Students would then be able to meet with teachers or a specialist to take proactive steps to improve learning techniques in advance of final grades.
Other notable recommendations include disaggregating college graduation and completion rates by race/ethnicity within gender categories so that young men of color can make better informed decisions about where to attend college, as well as mandating that institutions conduct a self-study of student experiences. Colleges are currently required to report graduation and completion rates by the federal Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act.
Often data are collected and not used to their full potential. A major purpose of data is to help learn which programs are working and which are lacking. From there new plans can be implemented to further student achievement. These recommendations for the MBK program will only succeed if the data are not only collected, but analyzed to make permanent improvements to practice.