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Big data and class

January 5, 2015

About a month ago there was an interesting article in the New York Times entitled Blowing Off Class? We Know. It discusses the “big data” movement in colleges around the country. For example, at Ball State, they track which students go to parties at the student center. Presumably to help them study for tests, or maybe to figure out which ones to hit up for alumni gifts later on.

There’s a lot to discuss in this article, but I want to focus today on one piece:

Big data has a lot of influential and moneyed advocates behind it, and I’ve asked some of them whether their enthusiasm might also be tinged with a little paternalism. After all, you don’t see elite institutions regularly tracking their students’ comings and goings this way. Big data advocates don’t dispute that, but they also note that elite institutions can ensure that their students succeed simply by being very selective in the first place.

The rest “get the students they get,” said William F. L. Moses, the managing director of education programs at the Kresge Foundation, which has given grants to the innovation alliance and to bolster data-analytics efforts at other colleges. “They have a moral obligation to help them succeed.”

This is a sentiment I’ve noticed a lot, although it’s not usually this obvious. Namely, the elite don’t need to be monitored, but the rabble does. The rich and powerful get to be quirky philosophers but the rest of the population need to be ranked and filed. And, by the way, we are spying on them for their own good.

In other words, never mind how big data creates and expands classism; classism already helps decide who is put into the realm of big data in the first place.

It feeds into the larger question of who is entitled to privacy. If you want to be strict about your definition of pricacy, you might say “nobody.” But if you recognize that privacy is a spectrum, where we have a variable amount of information being collected on people, and also a variable amount of control over people whose information we have collected, then upon study, you will conclude that privacy, or at least relative privacy, is for the rich and powerful. And it starts early.

  1. Luke
    January 5, 2015 at 7:13 am

    This is obviously not just a Big Data phenomenon. Paternalism abounds, especially on the Left. See for example Nudge by Cass Sunstein: we anointed know better than you prole how to live your life.


    • January 5, 2015 at 8:50 am

      I’ve heard the argument before that Nudging is paternalism and I don’t buy it. My thinking is that there is usually no neutral way to present a decision, so by default you are always being randomly nudged… as long as the Nudger-in-chief’s recommendation is better than average, you benefit. When the Nudge has an effect, it tells us that people are *not* sure what is best for them. Of course there could be abuses if the Nudger was downright corrupt, but the opportunity for corruption seems if anything less than in other areas of government.

      If a restaurant puts stars next to their house favorites, I don’t feel patronized, but am grateful for the information.


    • Auros
      January 5, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      That seems like an awfully big stretch. How is the classic example of “nudge” policymaking — having 401(k) participation default to opting in, rather than requiring an active decision, but still having a simple checkbox available on your benefit signup forms, for those who choose to opt-out — remotely coercive? The big data stuff being discussed here is more like: If you want to go to college at the school that accepted you, you will accept surveillance. Or maybe we’ll deign to provide you with an opt-out, but it will require navigating an obscure bureaucratic process, visiting a couple different basement offices, and oh by the way you’ll have to pay cash at all school facilities, because we won’t let you use your student ID as a stored-value card, because that would create transaction records that we’d want to track, and even if you consented to have THOSE tracked, we don’t allow a partial opt-out — you’re either in for the whole system, or you’re out.


    • mark
      January 7, 2015 at 12:00 am

      Oh come on, its not just the left, and I would hope anyone bright enough to be reading this blog wouldn’t generalize that way. Even something as simplistic as the libertarian party’s 4-way “chart your position” political map recognizes this. It has no relation to left or right, and every relation to groups who want to alter the behavior of others in coercive ways. And the 20th century is replete with examples on the left and right. Oh wait…liberal media. Benghazi. Kenya. -_-


  2. Katie
    January 5, 2015 at 10:02 am

    How similar is this phenomenon to 18 days of standardized testing for public school 4th graders and zero for private school? The only accountability for private schools is ~ what? ~ which private high school they can get their kid into? (sorry, couldn’t help the snark)

    If testing is supposed to make our schools better, why do people think it’s worth paying for private education? They can get a whole lot more “betterment” in the public schools, right?


  3. Ulysses
    January 5, 2015 at 10:43 am

    It’s true that the methods and motivations of those that use “Big Data” have a paternalistic aspect. If one were to argue that paternalism is the worst phenomenon then the result would be some kind of laissez-faire construct. Given that this extreme is unacceptable for most one might next ask how best to optimize society (either for fairness, happiness, etc). I find that any chosen strategy or technique is easy to criticize, but no ideas exist for determining which social engineering strategy is least harmful. Any suggestions or ideas?


  4. January 5, 2015 at 10:46 am

    This reminds me of a trade conference I was at a few years ago (mobile computing). Participants wanted apps that tracked truck drivers, delivery workers, and field service employees because otherwise they’d all be off at the donut shop instead of working. At the end of the day they (OK we) headed off to a restaurant on the company dime, knowing that many people would be gaming their expense account rules by including people on the bill who were not actually present etc.


    • January 5, 2015 at 10:48 am

      Thanks for that example, it’s so perfect. I’ve been trying to find the article I once read that tried to explain why Bloomberg’s DOE administrators didn’t need to be evaluated with metrics but everyone working under them did.


    • January 5, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      You are right on with the tracking of drivers, which was supposed to be for being able to locate drivers in case of hijackings, etc. When this all started. I spent 25 years in logistics so know this one well. On top of that, when you are in sales, you work for managers that teach you how to cheat as well on your expense account. When I say this it means “how to list things” so you get covered for your expenditures. The same management would have you buying something in a fashion that was outside the normal realms of what you could expense. So to get your money back, you had to lie in what the expense was. Ok, so when they want you out the door as a sales rep, “you lied on your expense account”…and again gosh knows what the sales manager does on theirs but they are above reproach.


  5. January 5, 2015 at 11:11 am

    I agree with a lot of the points here, but . . . can’t resist a tempting argument . . .:

    An alternative view of elite colleges: they don’t care whether they are having a positive impact on their students, so why bother to collect the data?

    An alternative to the alternative: they know they aren’t having a positive impact on their students, so they have a reason to not collect data.

    One administrator was frank with me: “we spent a lot of time trying to figure out our value-add. At the end of the project, we realized that we had an awesome collection of students coming in the door and they were still awesome when they walked out.”

    Also, are you saying there’s no paternalism toward students (and junior faculty) at highly selective institutions? Ha and double ha. Or, maybe that was introduced after they started letting in hoi polloi like me?


  6. ~ mclovin
    January 5, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Wait, no mention of Harvard?!! It has had its own set of privacy violations lately – ones that come to mind include faculty email being searched, and another about the Vice Provost approving a study where students (and untenured instructors) in class were secretly photographed. (I don’t know the exact results of the latter study, but I vaguely recall (possibly misleading) headlines gleefully saying Harvard students weren’t going to class either). Once the students and faculty found out what the admins were up to, then they became irate, so I doubt that what is being openly accepted at Ball State would be tolerated at Harvard, which I guess is what you are saying. But in the second case, it seems the information only came to light when the admins requested a meeting with the instructors. They’ll learn from this mistake next time. Also, it seems the results of the study were presented without disclosing the method used to obtain the data.




  7. January 5, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    I like your point that class and privacy are linked…
    I wrote a blog post on this titled “Another big data conundrum” when it first came out:
    Here’s the gist of the post: big data could be used to individualize instruction in public education or it could be used as evidence to validate the sorting and selecting we do today, be it by neighborhoods and communities or within school… and thus far we seem to be using “big data” more for the former…


    • January 5, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      OOPS… I meant the LATTER!


  8. January 5, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    heres a somewhat contrary view. there is *massive* big data on class differences eg wealth disparity etc, CEO pay over worker pay etc, it has gone back many, many decades, in fact the long tail distribution in wealth was first discovered by Pareto, a name that has been largely forgotten in the sands of time, and really shouldnt be esp in the current extreme climate. what is really happening is that its being largely *ignored* by everyone. its a massive tree falling in a forest that is largely unheard. oh yeah everyone has some rough awareness but is it being used to guide govt policy? look how the Fed obsesses over statistics and big data endlessly for decades, but wealth inequality has largely not entered into policy whatsoever. its the massive elephant in the room. wealth inequality is as important as fed interest rates, Dow changes, inflation changes, and GDP changes. one could argue even *more* important. those other changes are useful to be tracked by the rich. wall st is already the master of big data, and utilizing it for financial gain, and has been for decades…. the big question is whether Joe Sixpack will ever figure out how to leverage it in his own favor? and so far the answer is “not really, not so far”…..


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