How good intentions can be misinterpreted – a Big Data flameout

In this case, the good intentions have to do with improving school efficiencies, making teachers’ jobs easier, giving students more flexibility and facilitating parents’ choices. I’m talking about Inbloom, the software platform that was to revolutionise the way schools manage their data. The idea was that students’ data would be standardised and aggregated, so that teaching could be more tailored to the student’s abilities, trends and problems could be spotted sooner, and transferring schools would no longer be a big hassle.

Inbloom educational software

Sounds good, right? Inbloom would give the schools significant cost savings, free up management resources, and make it easier to spot trends and identify problems… Several states adopted Inbloom as the educational standard, and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York contributed significant funding. Things were going well, schools were signing up, and the administrators and officials were getting excited about the digitalised future of education. But at the end of last month Inbloom announced that it was closing its virtual doors. What happened?

There is so much to talk about here (the role of Big Data in education, the value of standardised curriculums, the security of cloud storage…) that I will leave for future posts. But it is worth looking at what Inbloom wanted to do, why it is a very good idea, the mistakes that they made, and what we can learn from all this.

Inbloom wanted to standardise school data, and to make it easy for schools to input, analyse and share this information. Traditionally US schools have spent untold resources on data input in different, often incompatible platforms. If a student changed schools, transferring his or her data from one school to another could take up to several weeks, which didn’t exactly facilitate integration. And with data spread out so thinly, it was impossible to analyse, so teachers were often working with sparse information and applying general assumptions to disperse groups. Patterns were almost impossible to see, schools could not tell which subjects were working or not, and teachers did not in general have the necessary data to be able to effectively personalize the classes.

Having all the data in one place makes it easier for teachers and school administrators to analyse teaching methods, track student performance, identify outliers… And the data is more easily transferrable if students change schools. Up until now the data has been in different databases, with different formats, and was not easily transferrable, which made following a child’s progress as he or she passed through several schools very difficult indeed.

But, Inbloom made several big mistakes. When it comes to their kids’ data, parents are understandably sensitive. Inbloom did not focus on speaking directly to the parents, addressing their concerns and explaining the security controls. It chose to let the schools do that, and even dropped out of its social media channels. But it turned out that the schools and state departments in general were not equipped to talk about Big Data fears, and took the easier route of backing down. The media backlash prompted states to drop out of the programme, and the loss of the New York state schools was the final blow.

Frankly, some of the parents’ fears are quite understandable. For instance, data permanence: for how long is the information stored? Let’s say your son or daughter one day decides to run for President of the United States. Do you really want the number of times that he or she was late to class to be a matter of public record? Even if your child’s ambitions are nowhere near that high, parents do not feel comfortable handing over sensitive data like academic record, health information, family relationships and disciplinary actions to a private company, even a non-profit that cannot in any way sell the data.

And as for public record, who owns the data, the school or the state? The data is put in by the school, but the state is Inbloom’s client. If a school wanted certain data deleted, for example, it would have to get permission from the state. And what if a parent simply doesn’t want the data shared, is there an opt-out option? Do you have to change schools, move states, leave the country?

The thing is, this data is all already in the system anyway. Health information, attendance records, etc., are stored on computers somewhere. What Inbloom wanted to do was to aggregate the data for efficiency and for insight. What was not well handled was the data control issue. It seems that we are more comfortable if our data is fragmented, because is it less likely that a bigger picture about us as individuals can be drawn. We understandably fear the labelling and the misunderstanding.

As the CEO said in a message on Inbloom’s webpage, “this concept is still new, and building public acceptance for the solution will require more time and resources than anyone could have anticipated”. Sensitivity should be added to the list, as well as perseverance. Inbloom or its successors need to work with all of the participants – the states, the schools, the parents and the students – to figure out what everyone wants, to calm fears, to add features and even to help draft a Students’ Privacy Bill of Rights.

We’re not yet comfortable with Big Data, especially when it concerns our kids. But at least we’re having the discussion, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the possibilities, and better information and communication will eventually help us to accept that the efficiencies are worth it. May Inbloom’s demise not be in vain.

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For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education

Spain: 34th in the World Economic Forum Network Readiness Index… but we’re improving!

In April, the World Economic Forum released its 13th Annual Global Information Technology Report, which highlights the ranking and evolution of countries’ “Network Readiness”. Congratulations to Finland and Singapore who hold their first and second positions respectively. Well done to the US, who moved up to 7th from 9th last year. And a special round of applause goes to Spain, where I live, which leapt from 38th (ahem) to 34th, well done, Spain! But wait a minute… 34th????

map of Spain technology

So let’s go into some detail: what is Network Readiness, and how is it measured? Network Readiness is a measure of how much a country uses communication infrastructure (Internet, smartphones, etc.) to promote economic growth and the well-being of its citizens.

To rank each nation, the World Economic Forum team looks at 54 different indicators. These include measurable statistics such as the percentage of Internet users or the average number of days necessary to start a business, as well as qualitative criteria, such as the quality of math and science education in each country.

Here’s what the World Economic Forum has to say about us:

“Portugal and Spain, at 33rd and 34th position respectively, present fairly stable profiles. As in past editions, both countries have managed to develop good ICT infrastructures (36th and 32nd, respectively) and ICT uptake has permeated among their populations, particularly in Spain where almost three-quarters are Internet users (34th). In addition, both governments have made significant attempts to increase the number of services they offer online. Despite these efforts, both countries continue to struggle to fully leverage ICTs to boost innovation (42nd and 57th, respectively), and weaknesses in their innovation ecosystems persist, notably in Spain (51st). Addressing these weaknesses and integrating ICT investments better with other innovation enhancing investments, such as R&D, would result in more robust economic outputs, which are needed for the economic transformation of these countries.”


Looking at the figures, it seems that what most pushed us up is the drop in mobile tariffs (on the affordability index we went up from 102nd to 41st!!!). We also seem to have improved a lot on the impact of ICTs on new products, services (38th to 27th) and organizational models (51st to 33rd)… But, worryingly, on capacity for innovation, we dropped from 44th to 57th… But ICTs are having more of an impact, which sounds innovative to me…

We seem to have improved a little bit on math and science education (97th to 88th), which is on the one hand encouraging but on the other hand frustrating that we’ve only just broken out of the bottom third worldwide… We improved quite a bit on staff training (105th to 97th), but it’s still embarrassing… On the number of households with a personal computer, we fell from 32nd to 36th… Really? Are households getting rid of their computers, or do we have more households? And in mobile phone usage (number of users as a % of population), we dropped from 57th to 75th! The bottom half of the ranking! That is difficult to reconcile with our stunning improvement in the affordability index. And I could have sworn that I saw more people on the metro staring at their little screens than last year…

We’ve plummeted in the venture capital availability ranking (down to 105th, that’s almost the bottom 25%!), although I question how they measure that. The WEF doesn’t seem to have too high an opinion of our judicial independence (we’re down to 72nd). We’re apparently still in the bottom third (98th) when it comes to contract enforcement. Combine those barriers with the punitive tax rate (there are only 16 nations below us), and it makes you wonder why we still try to set up businesses here.

Now, having lived through years of my friends and colleagues in the start-up/tech sector griping about how difficult it is to do business here and how technologically behind we are, this report is both refreshing, and a little depressing. Refreshing, in that we are improving! Yes! And, being a glass-half-full kind of person, we are now in the top 25%, which isn’t too bad.

It is a little depressing, though, when you look at all the countries that are ahead of us. How can that be, when we obviously have the bluest skies and the friendliest people and the best food? And yes, I know that’s a subjective opinion, not based on fact at all, or even on personal experience (I haven’t been everywhere, yet). Allow me a little adopted pride for this country I love, so full of room for improvement… :)

The breakdown:
WEF report on Spain technology

You can see the World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Reports for 2013 and 2014 here and here (quite good reading, actually, the 2014 report talks a lot about Big Data, and the 2013 report focusses more on Digitalization).

And if you want to know which countries come before Spain, here they are:

WEF Information Technology rankings

Women in Tech: let’s start the change at school level

Explain this: in the US In 2012, women accounted for 57% of college graduates, but just 18% of computer science graduates. In Spain, where I live, the figures are 54% and 28% respectively.

Women in Tech

(image from Death to the Stock Photo)

Yesterday I attended a really interesting conference in Madrid put on by the Instituto de la Mujer, on “Mujeres y Tecnología”. Interesting topics, well presented, but the speech that most grabbed my attention touched on the key motivators of identity and visibility. José Antonio Gabelas of the University of Zaragoza presented “”Internet as an instrument for a gender-equal education”, and his main focus was on the “gender gap”, why women are “missing the train” of progress. We were not key players in the first two industrial revolutions, and we’re missing out on the third.

Unfortunately, that does seem to be true, on average. In 2013, 26% of the US computing workforce were women, according to the Dept. of Labor. 63% of 2013 Intel Science and Engineering Fair finalists in biochemistry were female, whereas in computer science the number comes down to 14%. Why the difference? Women hold 57% of professional occupations in the US, but if we filter down to professional computing occupations, the number drops to 26%. Why?

While many women feel that there is a macho culture in the tech field that alienates women (for more on that, see here and here), Professor Gabelas and others believe that the problem starts much, much earlier, in schools. The numbers seem to bear that out:

In the US, only 20% of students taking the AP Computer Science exam were female. In the UK, 12 times as many boys as girls took optional computer science classes in school. And even the girls who do well in science classes tend to drop them at A-level. An article in Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper from December of last year states that “the picture in Britain is of a generation of girls who are nervous about maths and science.”

I was a maths geek in school and credit to my parents and my teachers that I was never made to feel awkward or even odd in any way. But most girls are not so lucky. Years ago I met a woman who was writing a thesis on why girls are bad at math. Her conclusion: that we’re embarrassed. We want to be liked, not teased. We want to be popular, not geeky. Often the subliminal pressure starts at home, with mothers asking daughters questions like: “Why do you want to study engineering? You’re so pretty!”. Schools often subconsciously perpetuate the stereotype. I doubt that anyone consciously pushes their daughters or students away from a technical path, but we often transmit the cultural values that were transmitted to us. It’s hard to change an attitude over the span of only one generation.

computer science class

(image from the San Francisco Chronicle)

Something can be done. One Berkeley computer class last year had 106 women and 104 men enrolled. However, to attract women the course was re-named “Beauty and the Joy of Computing”, so the sudden female interest is more understandable. Do we really need to repackage the field so drastically to get women interested?

Important progress is being made to introduce young girls to coding, in an environment where social pressure is not a factor. Stanford’s “Girls Teach Girls to Code” programme invites 200 high school girls onto the university campus to attend a day-long computer science workshop. Microsoft’s DigiGirlz (I like the name! Gimmicky, but cool) aims to “dispel stereotypes of the high-tech industry” through a series of technology workshops. And I love the concept and style of Geek Girl Camp, which organizes conferences, workshops and seminars by tech women, for tech women. CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls) is an after-school club platform in the UK designed to retain girls’ interest in computing.

And, wait for it, Mattel is doing its bit with the Computer Engineer Barbie (with a pink computer, of course, because everyone knows that we love pink).

computer engineer barbie

Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It…  The world needs more programmes like this. If anyone in the Madrid area wants to work on one with me (bear in mind that I’m not a programmer), get in touch!

While these programmes are a great start, I believe that the key lies in the schools. We will not have smoothed out the stereotypes and the macho culture until there is a more equal gender balance in voluntary computer classes for kids. Great computer science teachers reaching young students of both sexes can create a motivation and a momentum that will survive the speed bump of puberty and self-consciousness.

And since the education model is slowly changing anyway (more on this later), with lectures increasingly viewed at home and the homework done in the classroom (and I’m all for more of this), the “shyness” and awkwardness that young girls traditionally feel in a “macho” subject will disappear. And when they start kicking ass doing really well, they will not care if they are still in the minority. Which means that soon they won’t be. My 11-year-old daughter has been working on and for a while now, and is already way ahead of her class, which is just starting to learn programming. She says she wants to be a computer programmer when she grows up. I could not be prouder.

(Note: if you’d like more material on this, check out my board on Women in Tech.)

The gig economy

The other day I jumped into the gig economy. “The what?”, I hear you say. The gig economy, with gig, not as in “gigahertz” or some such huge scale number, but as in “hey, we have a gig tonight”. Gig as in “temporary performance job”.

the gig economy

You’ve probably heard of (and maybe even used?) the big freelance sites that are taking over the job search and allocation function. ODesk and eLance are the big ones in the US, and here in Spain we have Adtriboo and Nubelo. These “marketplaces” put together programmers, writers, project managers, etc., with businesses or individuals who need to subcontract professional services. An automated temporary employment agency, if you will. It’s quick, reliable and relatively inexpensive. Say you need to integrate your blog into your company website. You post this need to the oDesk board (this is for example, I’m not recommending oDesk over the others), and you receive bids for the job from the interested programmers. They could be next door or on the other side of the world, it doesn’t matter. You choose one, transmit the details via email or file sharing, and you let them get on with it. You pay oDesk, but the payment is not actually taken until the job is successfully completed. ODesk then pays the worker, after taking its cut.

The huge advantage lies in taking the stress out of finding a reliable freelance (and then keeping them happy!). Here you have a choice, just as the freelancer does. Another huge advantage is in no payment hassle, you pay the platform, usually through credit card, and the platform takes care of the rest.

But why is it an economy? Surely it’s just a few websites that help you find an inexpensive computer programmer? We are increasingly hearing the term “gig economy” not because the number of businesses operating in this sector is increasing significantly (although it is), but because it implies a re-think of how we see work, and how we get things done. Less fixed obligations, more freedom. Less routine, more performance.

performance economy

None of this is new, and probably won’t affect you at all if you don’t have a business or website to run. Here’s the cool part: the gig economy is encroaching on your daily life. Platforms are springing up that offer you help with just about anything.

Let’s say you need someone to walk your dog, sort your mail, do your ironing, pick up the groceries or assemble your IKEA bookshelf. You go onto the marketplace of choice (in the US the largest is TaskRabbit, here in Spain we have, type in the task that needs performing, and various interested “performers” will get in touch with you. Or, depending on the website, the platform will choose someone for you. You decide how much you want to pay.

So maybe you’re starting to see why it is a whole different economy, through how the prices are set and the supply is distributed. The market (=you) sets the “wage” (= how much you’re willing to pay). If it’s too little, you’ll have a hard time finding someone capable to do it. If it’s too much, well, I doubt you’d get any complaints, but it’s not very “rational” (economics-speak for “not a good idea”) and so you’d eventually bring the price down a bit.

As for the supply, there’s no continuity implied. You could hire someone on a steady basis through the gig economy, but that does have its disadvantages, as in, what do you do when your dog walker or babysitter or driver can’t do it? With the gig economy you have a steady stream of potential but temporary employees, and if someone doesn’t meet expectations, you don’t hire them again.

The lack of continuity does bring up the trust issue. How do you know they’ll show up? If someone has a salary, they’re interested in not losing that nice steady fixed income, so they’ll continue coming so as to not break their work contract. And they’ll probably try hard to impress you so that not only will you keep them on but soon you’ll want to pay them more. With disjointed “here-today-and-gone-tomorrow” contracts, where’s the incentive?

The ratings system. Anyone who wants to do well in the gig economy lives and dies by his or her rating (of course I’m speaking figuratively!). If you don’t show up, that goes on your public rating. If you’re rude or lazy or incompetent, that goes on your public rating. And with a weak public rating, no-one will hire you.

But where’s the stability that as humans we need and crave? Here’s the thing… do we?? We’re told we do by social analysts and psychologists, we’re shown these pyramids of emotional needs that must be satisfied to be a happy human being… But what if freedom and flexibility are more empowering, more creative?

I could go on for ages about this, but I’ll stop because I’m about to exceed my self-imposed word limit (you can thank me later). I’ll probably come back to this soon, with some facts and examples to show you how fast this whole thing is growing.

My experience with the gig economy was mixed: I had a few computer issues to be fixed, and the technician that I was assigned took ages and wasn’t able to fix anything. But I loved the platform (I used, and would definitely go back to them again. And, yes, they will let me request a different technician next time.