The Data-Driven Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Dilemma

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    Three Big Problems Big Data Will Create in 2014

    By now, everyone has heard some variation on the statistic about the data scientist shortage: By 2018, there will be a shortage of up to 190,000 qualified data scientists, to cite one version from the McKinsey Global Institute.

    Organizations around the globe are trying to figure that one out, and the consensus seems to be that many will have to rely on a team approach when it comes to the tasks of mining Big Data.

    Fair enough. But I’m beginning to think we have an even bigger problem ahead of us.

    There’s a huge shift happening in our world. Increasingly, businesses, government and even individuals are striving to be “data driven.” Thanks to sensors and the Internet of Things, we can collect data in new and exciting ways, from details about our businesses to our bodies.

    It really hit me how pervasive the data-driven culture is during a recent presentation by Jefferson County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent, John Marshall.

    Schools have collected data for a long time, but Marshall did something different with the data. He used the data to show where the school district stands in terms of creating equity. Specifically, he took the district’s top strategic domains—discipline, literacy, college/career readiness and school climate/culture—and used the data to show the inequality across these domains for minority and low-income groups.

    Another unusual thing about this report: He didn’t just look at the district or specific schools; Marshall examined the data by zip code, which is unusual for large school districts.

    The result: An equity scorecard.

    In some ways, it sounds obvious—of course you want to look at equity; of course geography might be a factor. That’s not what’s happened traditionally, though. In fact, using data in this way is so unusual that he’s presenting it to other districts, and even in other cities, such as Chicago.

    That’s a great success story for the school district, but it’s also a success story for data. When data is used to illuminate problems and further strategic goals, it’s a big win. It signals that we’re finally moving beyond rote reports to exploring the data and seeing what it can tell us if it’s used to answer new questions or looked at in a different way.

    But our rush to embrace data can be dangerous as well, and that’s very apparent if you look at what’s happening nationally in education today.

    “Surrounded by piles of student work to grade, lessons to plan and laundry to do, I have but one hope for the new year: that the Common Core State Standards, their related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing and the new teacher evaluation program will become extinct,” writes Elizabeth A. Natale in The Courant.

    She raises several issues that I’ll leave to your own judgment, but one particular complaint I think we can all agree is a major problem:

    “Until this year, I was a highly regarded certified teacher. Now, I must prove myself with data that holds little meaning to me.

    This is the Edward Hyde side of data: data that’s not understood by the person trying to use it. It’s using data as a hammer for punishing, rather than a tool to guide or inform. It’s not an unusual complaint, but what strikes me as new is the push to make major changes and even fire people based solely on the data. It’s a trend that’s most obvious, but not limited to, education.

    We are quickly becoming a data-rich society. But are we, as a society, data savvy enough to understand, analyze and responsibly use data for such significant decisions?

    I’m not so sure we are. I’ll explain why in my next post.

    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and business issues, including integration, health care IT, cloud and Big Data.

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