Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Data Boy!

Increasingly, the world’s real currency appears to be data. While the text portion of what is stored in the Library of Congress would fill 20 terabytes of file server storage space, Wal*Mart has about 600 terabytes of such data, Google could have as many as 2,000 terabytes and consumer information specialist, Acxiom close to 1,000 terabytes. They can predict your behavior with greater reliability than you can predict yourself in so many instances. Specialized companies troll these vast caverns of information, asking the most amazing questions, and getting even more amazing, and totally accurate answer. It drives privacy advocates bonkers.

Chicago has one of those school districts was an early adopter of analytics (applied against its vast pools of data) in determining policy and corrective action. It’s one of the features that drew President Obama to a very young school superintendent, Arne Duncan, who is now our Secretary of Education. During the Bush Administration, the No Child Left Behind Act gave states the right to concoct standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness and student progress.

Educators complained that teachers, often promised cash bonuses for increase test scores, relegated themselves to “teaching to the test,” rather than in promoting true learning. Chicago officials, aided with these analytics, also determined that a number of teachers showed vastly improved test scores among their specific students that were not present in the preceding or following years of tests of the same students. Simply put, the analytics revealed teachers who were actually altering their students’ test scores or otherwise providing answers in advance. These analytics resulted in many of these teachers being fired.

Chicago’s at it again, applying analytics to another matrix of “students at risk.” This time, the chief enforcement officer of Chicago’s public schools, Ron Huberman, is applying statistical analysis to stop the increasing murder rates of the city’s high school students. The October 7th NY Times: “Financed by federal stimulus grants for two years, the $60 million plan uses a formula gleaned from an analysis of more than 500 students who were shot over the last several years to predict the characteristics of potential future victims, including when and where they might be attacked. While other big city school districts, including New York, have tried to focus security efforts on preventing violence, this plan goes further by identifying the most vulnerable students and saturating them with adult attention, including giving each of them a paid job and a local advocate who would be on call for support 24 hours a day.”

The numbers are producing very interesting results: “From the study of the 500 shootings, Mr. Huberman said, officials know that deadly violent outbursts are not truly random. The students at highest risk of violence, by statistics, are most likely to be black, male, without a stable living environment, in special education, skipping an average of 42 percent of school days at neighborhood and alternative schools, and having a record of in-school behavioral flare-ups that is about eight times higher than the average student… Attacks have typically happened beyond a two-hour window from the start and end of school — that is, late at night or very early in the morning — and blocks away from school grounds, where neighborhood boundaries press against one another.” The Times

A recent horrific killing of a 16-year-old Chicago honor student may have cost the city the Olympics, but at least local officials are looking for the “grand solution.” The balance between our loss of privacy and fixing what’s seriously wrong with our society is exceptionally challenging.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I thought you might like to know.

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