Money & Finance Opinion

Liberating Big Data

By Matt Greenfield — October 20, 2012 3 min read

Apparently standards for certifications in aircraft maintenance have not been updated recently: some of them still refer to wooden airframes. That was one of the things I learned at one of the Department of Education’s DC to VC events (hosted by University Ventures).

That is one image of government technology: the wood-framed, canvas-covered biplane in the age of--but wait! My analogy is breaking apart and crashing! Mayday! Mayday! Doesn’t the government also work with defense contractors to build the world’s speediest, most advanced airplanes and spacecraft?

The biggest technological innovations of the twentieth century came out of intimate collaborations between government agencies, universities, and private enterprise. Together, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), universities including UCLA, the University of Michigan, and MIT, and commercial entities like Bell Laboratories, SRI, Rand, and BBN Technologies developed the internet (an early instantiation was called ARPANET).

Another interesting example of the government helping to create a comercially valuable platform is the global positioning system, which is based on work by two Johns Hopkins physicists but was created and is still run by the Department of Defence. At the DC to VC event I attended, Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, cited an estimate that use of the global positioning system has added an annual $100 billion to our GDP. This figure may not be entirely trustworthy, since it comes from a consultant hired to assess the potential economic damage that would result from interference with the global positioning system by the LightSquared network. But there is no question that GPS technology is generating all sorts of unexpected benefits.

Todd Park’s mission as CTO of the United States is to help create more data platforms of similar fruitfulness. Todd was co-founder of healthcare technology innovators Athena Health and Castlight, and he spends a lot of time thinking about how to open up the government’s trove of healthcare statistics for new uses. But Todd also wants to do the same for the government’s hoards of education data. This turns out to be trickier than one might think.

Todd and the Office of Educational Technology are pretty sophisticated about privacy and preventing the leakage of personally identifiable information. And they understand how to create rich, useful application programming interfaces (APIs). But the underlying data itself is extremely problematic. For example, as Daniel Pianko of University Ventures pointed out, there is no consensus on even such basic topics as what qualifies as retention or degree completion, and there is a much higher degree of debate over how to measure job placements and educational outcomes. Perhaps opening up more of the government’s data will lead to an improvement in the specificity and usefulness of that data. And if enough useful tools and services are created, perhaps the Department of Education and other institutions will be motivated to gather more data points.

One of the most interesting educational data initiatives is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Educational Technology’s MyData, which will give college students access to their own data in a machine-readable format, including not only student loan and financial aid information but also, at least with one vendor, information from a student information system. The idea is that students will own their data in a permanent and portable form. This initiative may or may not get traction in the next few years. But it is certainly worth trying, and I am grateful for the energy and enthusiasm the government has brought to it.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Money & Finance Opinion There Is No Bubble in Educational Technology: Not For Businesses That Actually Make Sense
Many people are wondering whether there is a bubble in educational technology. Has too much venture capital been invested in the sector? Have valuations gotten too high? My answer is that there is a bubble in ideas that won't work and a dearth of capital for ideas that can work.
Matt Greenfield
4 min read
Money & Finance Opinion Nice Test Scores, Can I Buy You?; The Future of Financing Talent
A Company called Fantex recently announced it will be selling stock in football superstar Arian Foster, SEC-approval and all. With this breakthrough, is it only a matter of time before we can invest in the future earnings of promising kindergartners?
Tom Segal
7 min read
Money & Finance Opinion EdTech Titans of Industry: A Reflection
This week marked the second annual EdTech Titans of Industry event in New York City featuring some of the top players in education: Diane Rhoten, Jonathan Harber, Gates Bryant, and George Cigale. Here are some of the highlights..
Tom Segal
3 min read
Money & Finance Opinion Mark it a Ten: Tech Acquirers Enter the World of Education
With the rise of ed-tech over the past few years, we have seen a steady stream of publishers, media companies, and private equity shops acting on the back-end of the venture market as the ultimate acquirers. But we have not seen a major technology company jump on board... until now, with Amazon's purchase of TenMarks
Tom Segal
3 min read