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A Summer Too Short

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One of the myths about university faculty and administrator life is that summers are times of leisure.

The truth is that faculty are furiously working on their research and scholarship, either absorbing new information that pushes a research idea along, synthesizing information to build out their new products, or writing/producing the final scholarly products for dissemination to the larger world. Some of that work is off campus, in archives, research institutes, or laboratories away from DC. Administrators are planning new initiatives, working diligently on budget issues, and finalizing faculty recruiting. Mostly they’re still on campus.

This summer, much of the Provost Office attention is on cross-school and cross-campus initiatives. For example, we are proud to be working on the university initiative on Racial Justice, launching faculty searches for four founding members of the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice, who will be tenured members of an academic unit as well as research professors in the Institute. This involves searches on all three campuses, in coordination with a university-level committee.

For me this summer seems over already. With each passing day, I notice more people walking across campus. Some are part of early prep programs at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Some programs start their formal classes in early August.

Workers on the facilities crews are furiously completing renovations in dormitories, bringing in newly purchased furniture, and preparing for the new occupants. The volume of rain we have had over the past few weeks have kept them busy, just repairing and protecting the campus buildings.

More and more faculty are around making final preparations for their fall courses. They’ve changed the mix of time spent on their research and time spent on teaching-related activities.

We’re preparing the programs for the new student convocations, both undergraduate and graduate. These involve large numbers of staff, all devoted to offering a sincere welcome to new members of our community. On the undergraduate side, dormitory move-in is only about two weeks away. This is a multi-day affair with a balloon-decorated campus, filled with upper-level students greeting the families of new students and helping them move their belongings into their new rooms. The level of energy is a stark contrast to the quieter days of the summer.

While I welcomed the quiet of a summer campus for a few weeks, it gets old pretty fast. The vibrancy of a university depends on the energy brought to it by the passion of faculty devoted to their field and the excitement of students in actively pursuing their formation as learners of new fields. This happens only when they’re together.

Over the past few days, as the foot traffic on campus increases, you can almost feel the ever-growing energy that makes a university a special place. They’ll all be back soon, and the magic will begin again.

Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award

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Georgetown hires faculty who are unusually devoted to their teaching. This becomes the day-to-day manifestation of being a “student-centered” research university. Teaching standards are high, reinforced by the norms of faculty within units. We recognize superb teaching with awards, both within schools and at higher levels (e.g., the Dorothy Brown Award, and the President’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award).

About five years ago the Provost’s Office provided internal grants to faculty to support innovation within their classrooms and to explore new ways of enhancing the depth of learning among their students. Some of these were technology-enhanced methods; others were attempts to deepen the research-based learning within courses. This effort was a success. Indeed, every week I learn about Georgetown colleagues using new tools to improve learning within courses and about the construction of new flexible methods of pursuing traditional courses. Georgetown faculty are actively engaged in innovating within their classes.

The best and boldest of this innovation should be recognized. We should shine the spotlight on those who are attempting new ways of teaching and organizing learning opportunities. So, we’ve decided to create the Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award.

The Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award recognizes a faculty member, a faculty team, or a whole department/unit that has exhibited exceptional creativity and innovative approaches to promote student-centered learning. This annual award will be based on the extent of innovation, as well as evidence of impact on students, colleagues, and the potential for wider adoption. The award recipient(s) will present their innovation to the Georgetown University Community, as part of the award presentation ceremony.

The award is open to all full-time faculty in any discipline who teach undergraduate and/or graduate students on the Main Campus at Georgetown University. A variety of innovations will be considered, including but not limited to, those in face-to-face courses as well as blended and online learning approaches. The innovations may have been used throughout a course, in special assignments, or in other learning activities. They may employ the innovative use of learning technologies and/or pedagogical methods.

We are interested in supporting joint teaching efforts of multiple faculty members; hence, innovative sharing of course content and team-teaching strategies are especially welcomed as nominees. Therefore, teams can win the award. When a whole department or program innovates by building a completely redesigned curriculum, the entire set of faculty involved can be awardees.

We are attempting to award innovation, even if it was not completely successful. However, one criterion of importance is what evidence is collected to evaluate the innovation. Those innovations that are accompanied by evaluation of the innovation on learning will be given preference. In that regard, we want to honor those among us who take risks in improving their instructional performance, but do it with devotion to real evaluation of the innovation.

We will name a faculty selection panel to review the award nominations. We plan to have nominations due by December 15. We will announce the details at the start of the fall term.

Spread the word.

Public Interest Technology

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I attended a wonderful day-long meeting Monday. It was a gathering of presidents and provosts, faculty, and potential funders. The purpose of the meeting, led by the Ford Foundation and New America, was to discuss a new field of expertise, which they labeled “Public Interest Technology.”

The field is probably best illustrated by recent stories of the application to public sector work of knowledge and skills common to computer science and computer engineering.
Some of the stories involve combining data sources within a foster care service agency, to accelerate the vetting of applicants for foster parents, as well as the matching of eligible children to approved foster parents. Some of the stories involve analyzing the performance of predictive analytics to discover unintended inequitable treatment of groups. Others concern personal stories of technologists who left private sector internet firms, to serve stints on Capitol Hill. Those stories underscored the added value of technical knowledge in drafting legislation affecting digital data uses.

Georgetown’s joint seminar between the Law Center and MIT was highlighted. This innovative course has MIT engineering students in the same class as Georgetown Law students. Class projects sometimes focus on the draft of policy/legislation/regulations that affect use of new technology. For example, what is the appropriate level of consent required from someone whose digital image is used in facial recognition software platforms? How could one practically implement a consent process?

One theme of the meeting’s discussion was how the curriculum in computer science could communicate the opportunities to apply such knowledge and skills for common good purposes, regardless of what sector of work is chosen by the student. A special focus was the need to communicate the ethical implications of algorithmic design and implementation. Another focus was providing real experience-based learning applying design and development skills with public sector agencies’ problems.

Georgetown is already fortunate to be a recipient of the NSF CyberCorps™ Scholarship for Service Program to provide scholarships to students to earn degrees critical for cybersecurity in exchange for service in the form of employment in a governmental cybersecurity position. This program is a great manifestation of the spirit underlying the notion of public interest technology.

But there are many other activities ongoing at Georgetown that resonate with the spirit of public interest technology. The joint work of the Beeck Center and the McCourt School examining data use for social good is one. Another is the Beeck Center’s convening the Federal chief data officers together to discuss the practical issues of applying technology to the mission of Federal agencies. There is the new McCourt Masters Program in Data Science for Public Policy. Another is the faculty network forming around an initiative on Digital Ethics and Governance. This also acts to pull together other existing structures that are relevant to the space – the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Institute for Technology Law and Policy.

In the coming days, I will assemble a meeting of those faculty and research staff interested in asking how Georgetown might contribute to building the next generation of policy-literate, technology-literate professionals devoted to using their knowledge for the common good. This is a perfect opportunity for Georgetown to contribute in its own way to development of the field of public interest technology.

The Weakness of Strong Institutions

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There are few institutions in the United States that are experiencing increasing public trust over the past few years. Trust in government institutions seems unusually low.

This is a post about the higher education infrastructure of the United States. This infrastructure consists of a variegated ecology of educational and research institutions. It includes public community colleges, state and regional 4-year colleges, small private liberal arts colleges, state land-grant universities and other large state research universities, private research universities, the national laboratories, and quasi-independent research institutes. The vast majority of higher education students attend state universities; for decades, those schools have offered relatively affordable means to social mobility in the US.

In the 20th century, the large state research universities provided many of the cutting-edge discoveries in the natural and social sciences, a good deal of which found its way into applications in various pieces of the economy. They pushed forward new scholarship in the humanities and contributed to the societal culture, revolutionizing how we think about ourselves.

In the sciences, they offered a key magnet to attract the best minds throughout the world for advanced education. Many of the international students chose to stay in the US and pursue their careers, offering decades of enrichment to the country. Indeed, this pattern was doubly valuable because it coincided with a longstanding weakness of science education in K-12 schools. Without the in-migration of scientific talent, too few US residents were pursuing such higher education to permit the advanced developments we as a country now enjoy. The strength of these institutions of higher education and the ecology of different types of institutions were unparalleled in the world.

For the past few years we have been witnessing the dismantling of this ecology. Those institutions that were once so strong are now threatened. As state legislatures have annually cut tax-based support for these institutions, the schools have increased their tuition prices to replace tax sources. The increased tuition costs then have become the focus of criticism. It seems a vicious cycle.

Reflecting on these events, it is startling how quickly this destruction of government-supported higher education is occurring. How could these institutions so quickly be gutted? How could institutions seemingly so strong be manifesting such weakness? Clearly, there seems to be a breakdown in shared values. Their strength largely rested on a shared norm – that support for education was the gift of one generation to the next, both benefiting individuals but also building a strong nation. Hence, a sense of civic duty underlay this widespread support.

Did lost trust in government lead to reduced support for state-funded higher education? Or, are these independent but co-incidental events? Did the perceived lack of shared benefits lead to large sets of taxpayers critiquing the “eliteness” of higher education? Did universities forget their role in service to the society in return for financial support from the public? Does the lack of support come merely from not knowing about the earnings’ gains among college graduates? Has the growing wealth inequality (perhaps, itself connected to access to higher education) fed beliefs that these institutions are not relevant to the majority of those suffering relative deprivation?

As we see other nations increase their support for higher education and begin to enjoy the societal advancement empowered by such support, it’s doubly sad to see our country willfully diminish the strength of state-supported colleges and universities.

It’s a moment when those who potentially benefit from access to higher education need to express their support. The society that our young will inherit will be stronger with a well-educated populace. It’s a moment when those inside higher education institutions need to remember that they exist solely through the support of others; in some sense, their right to exist depends on consistent demand for their services. It’s also time when those outside these institutions need to communicate their fundamental worth to the strength of a country.

Keeping One’s Eye on the Product, Not the Process

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In the latter part of the 20th century, automobile manufacturers began to change how they made cars. Instead of sequence of design phases, followed by engineering phases, followed by marketing phases, they began to realize great gains in combining those disparate pieces. Engineers and designers met directly with potential consumers, who themselves were examining prototypes of new automobiles. The engineer, whose prior job might have been creating the production process for a door handle, suddenly was confronted with a real client who used the handle in ways completely unanticipated by the engineer. The designer, whose prior job was creating the most aesthetically pleasing door handle, suddenly was confronted with the tradeoff of a consumer who might not share values with the designer and an engineer who taught them about production costs. In retrospect, this reorganization seems to have borne benefits. The companies focused more on the product than the process of creating the product.

I recently learned about transformations among companies that had achieved their initial reputation as radio media units. Their job was the production of radio programs. The programs were designed to be listened to serially, at one set period of time, for a length of time that was prespecified. The program designers assumed that the material was to be heard once and only once by each listener. Enter the digital world. In that world, users wanted the freedom to listen to parts of content, at a time of their own choosing, for a length of time that they could control, in an order that they found attractive, for as many re-listenings as they wanted. It forced, I was told, a gradual rethinking of the business. Instead of a radio business, organizations refocused themselves as story-tellers, information disseminators, and multimedia archives of event documentation. In short, the new technology forced new attention on the product (stories, information) not on the process of producing the product (formerly radio programs, now digitizable information delivered in many ways beyond just the aural).

It’s interesting to apply this way of thinking to universities.

We have three “products.” First, we produce graduates, “refined” versions of persons who complete programs successfully. Ideally, those persons have become more sophisticated in their knowledge, to the betterment of their own prospects, but hopefully also as vehicles to build a better world. Second, universities produce research results, sometimes based on discoveries of previously unknown features of the world, sometimes surprisingly new interpretations of “old” knowledge, and sometimes new creations that evoke new ways of thinking about the world. Third, universities, at their best, enhance the quality of life of their communities or the larger society. These benefits arise from the delivery of consultation to apply knowledge directly in service to the world.

Consistent with the observations above about a “product” perspective, universities need to keep our focus on their outcomes. Inside a university, there are unending demands for attention to courses, programs, student services, classroom quality, space allocation, and all the process steps of a university. However, such attention is misplaced if we ignore how the individual processes contribute to the three most important products of the university. We do that best, I think, when we mimic the trio of the designer, engineer, and customer examining a future auto prototype. Our version of that is having administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and employers all involved in providing input to shaping the future of what the university produces. With that, we can be smarter at designing how to make that happen. In short, maintaining a relentless focus on outcomes helps us prioritize processes. Important to remember; easy to forget in the day-to-day.

Working Together

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About a year ago I posted a note with concerns about the difficulty of engaging people different from ourselves in real dialogue.

As the events of the year have unfolded, such concerns have only grown. We hear of political labels becoming a key determinant of social interaction. We see more shouting across viewpoints on immigration, on racial/ethnic/cultural differences, and on socioeconomic inequalities. Much discussion appears to be structured to present only two opposing viewpoints rather than a myriad of opinions.

True dialogue requires careful listening. Listening requires a modicum of respect for others, regardless of their viewpoint. The reiteration and refinement of the Georgetown commitment to free speech asserts that the university needs to be a place where alternative viewpoints must be presented. Such an environment is one of the essential conditions for learning and knowledge refinement. The commitment is heavily driven by a rational approach, despite the fact that much of what we see in the world today is driven by an emotional approach. Somehow, we need to learn how to navigate between cognition and emotion in new ways these days.

In that regard, I continue to read more and more about “just plain folks” taking initiative to achieve such goals. A recent one was Tom Friedman’s column describing a community pushing for its own revival. There, a group of committed residents, none of them elected officials, learned they all shared concerns about the demise of the town center, following the departure of a large employer. The shared concerns existed side-by-side with opposing viewpoints on other issues. Friday meetings in one person’s house became the locus to identify the shared concerns and galvanize energy to take action. They themselves took responsibility for identifying and implementing solutions. They apparently ruled out blaming “the other guy.”

This piece is one of many pointing out that at the local community level, there may be a new spirit of community-building and working together – a movement that you can’t easily see focusing solely on the national scene. Some assert a causal connection. The chaos at the global and national level is itself the impetus to coming together at the local level. People, never before socially active, are becoming so. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we came out of this period with stronger communities that discovered ways to engage differences, despite the fact that there was no modeling of this behavior at the national level?

The fascinating, and challenging, aspect of these stories is that they force each of us to think about what we ourselves are doing, to reach out and engage the other. What am I doing to find common ground with those who don’t look like me, don’t inhabit my usual spaces, don’t share many of my interests, but who are part of the larger community I inhabit? That’s an observation a little tougher than observing with admiring eyes the work of others who are coming together in common purpose.

A Deep Dive into the Intellectual Life

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From time to time, the faculty of multiple schools identify a committee of their members to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the learning environment at Georgetown. Their focus is the intellectual formation of students and the faculty environment that facilitates that formation. Such “Intellectual Life” reports were completed in 1997 and 2007.

In May, 2018, a new report of an Intellectual Life Committee was delivered after review by various bodies, representing Georgetown College, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of Foreign Service, McDonough School of Business, and the McCourt School of Public Policy. The committee dedicated hours and hours of work on the task and performed a real service to the university. We owe them our thanks.1

The report is filled with sophisticated commentary on the role of academic advising in undergraduate and graduate education, the nature of interdisciplinary scholarship in the future of Georgetown, evaluation of new developments of pedagogy, grading protocols, the synergies among undergraduate and graduate education, and a host of other issues. There are 51 recommendations for ways that Georgetown can improve its performance. Some of these are already being implemented. Some can easily be implemented; some require more clarification and review by stakeholders.

There are many important observations in the report deserving of their own blog treatment over the coming months. This post concerns the report’s evaluation of the research experiences of students. The committee forwards the recommendation that each undergraduate have a first-year experience in a seminar that introduces them to the process of original inquiry. The committee sees the first-year seminar structure helping the student move away from a notion that their job is merely to receive the information from faculty and course materials, later to be regurgitated in examinations. Instead, to prepare students for a deeper intellectual development in their studies, original research experiences are a key tool. Further, the committee finds strong support among students for access to research experiences. In a set of focus groups run by the committee, students expressed the desire to do “real” research and original scholarship, not just exercises that mimic research as part of a structured course.

Such experiences are not merely assembling research and scholarship results from Google searches and JSTOR, but rather more original inquiries. This usually means that the student needs to have a real role in defining the question to be studied, to be guided by a mentor on methods of approaching the question, and to have ongoing interaction with senior mentors as the project proceeds. Finally, a key feature is the production of the final product, designed to answer the research question. Oral, written, and other media of communication should all be part of the research experience.

Why is this important? First, the first year should be organized to shape the student’s perspective on learning. Original inquiry early permits more sophisticated and more challenging course experiences later.

Second, one of the key drivers for post-graduation satisfaction with one’s higher education is joint work with faculty, in which an intellectual focus is the meat of the relationship. Original scholarship is the most efficient route to those benefits. The moments of personal interaction between students and faculty around a piece of scholarship are the most precious at a university. The report argues to organize our curriculum to enhance those moments.

Third, original inquiry in a new knowledge domain will be exercised countless times during the long working lives of our graduates, as they navigate new career lines. Students are seeking such experiences in their curricula, to help them prepare for their lives. We know how to do this well. We should do so.


Paul Roepe (chair), Bernie Cook, Bryce Huebner, Amy Liu, Prashant Malaviya, Sheila McMullan, Jason Schloetzer, Iwona Sadowska; ex officio (Kathryn Olesko, Clay Shields)

Georgetown in Washington

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One of the essential attributes of Georgetown as a university is its location in Washington, DC. At times, I try to imagine what would happen to Georgetown University if one would pick it up and place it in the middle of Iowa or a dozen other places. It is almost impossible for me to imagine the same university thriving, because so much of what motivated the construction of the university and what has contributed to its character is related to its location in Washington. This post attempts to deconstruct and identify the synergistic contributions of the university and the city.

It’s useful to begin with the Jesuit roots of the university, devoted to values of education open to all and service to the common good. So, one attribute of DC that is important is the community in which the university is placed. It is a community consisting of the very richest in the country and the very poorest; with highly educated and those with few educational resources; with those taking advantage of the highest quality health care services and those not able to access those services; with those occupying occupations of the highest prestige and those with no work at all. In short, in fulfilling Georgetown’s mission of building women and men for others, DC offers unrivaled service opportunities.

In addition, DC is a national capital. It, thereby, offers advantages to faculty, students, and staff who are interested in communicating their academic knowledge toward potential application in government policies. For Georgetown students, internships in the very heart of government are easy. Gaining first-hand knowledge about how decisions are shaped by evidence and information is possible. Learning the skills of translating from academic findings to action-oriented results is demanded for those who wish to be effective. Such experiences that are common to students and faculty at Georgetown in assistance to the Federal Government are nearly impossible for universities in other locations.

DC is a global city. Embassies, military attaché units, international financial organizations, and nongovernmental organizations with global missions all have presence in the city. For faculty and students with global orientations, it’s easy to learn about the workings of these organizations, to collaborate when appropriate, and to use them to advance one’s own expertise. Using the DC locations of these organizations facilitates work throughout the world, for those who desire deep experiences in countries outside the US.

DC is also a research and scholarship hub, with the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Galleries, and the research units of every major federal agency, present in the metropolitan area. Georgetown has welcomed the instructional expertise of researchers in those organizations, to the benefit of our students. They learn from those on the cutting edge of developments in these organizations. Georgetown faculty find among them collaborators for their own research. Relationships that are built on face-to-face communication and ongoing collaboration possible in DC would be difficult outside DC.

DC is a city of institutions. At this time, when trust in institutions of all sectors seems to be at all-time lows, how is this an advantage? Many in the city still believe that working together, across differences, remains the principal way that positive change occurs. So, the faculty and students of Georgetown, who are disproportionately working to improve the world, find that in DC they can have more opportunities to improve their collaboration skills, enhance their navigating differences of perspectives, and identify positive ways forward. They find people who have devoted their own lives to forming partnerships, finding synergies, identifying common goals, and working through differences.

Georgetown has much to give DC, but DC’s attributes are critical in providing the necessary opportunities for it to do so. I can’t imagine a better fit between location and institutional mission.

Recognizing Innovation in Instructional Approaches to Existing Classes

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Over the past few years Georgetown has invested many resources to permit faculty to mount experiments inside their classes, in an effort to continually improve the instruction we offer our students. Georgetown faculty repeatedly note that the most rewarding part of their job is teaching our students. Hence, they are constantly seeking ways to innovate in their instruction.

In fall 2012, the Initiative for Technology-Enhanced Learning offered support for faculty to use computer-based platforms to “flip” the classroom, allowing faculty to spend more time in dialogue with students. It incentivized experiments with a whole host of new pedagogical techniques. Each experiment was evaluated with regard to its efficacy. By 2018, scores of different approaches have been tested. Those receiving positive evaluations have been adopted by other instructors across the university. The “Designing the Future(s)” initiative has prompted a surge in experience- and research-based learning approaches to traditional courses. The “Core Pathways” program is permitting team-teaching across departments, modularization of core curricular requirements, and greater flexibility to students to fulfill their requirements. In short, the past few years have seen a leap in pedagogical innovation at Georgetown.

It seems an appropriate time to recognize the creativity of faculty who have invented new ways to teach and interact with our students, to the benefit of their formation and learning. The purpose of the recognition would, of course, be to celebrate the success of our colleagues in their teaching activities. It would also be a vehicle to spread innovation across departments, schools, and campuses, by reporting techniques that actually work. Six years ago, Georgetown needed a catalyst for innovation. At this point, the rate of innovation naturally occurring seems to suggest that now we need recognition of the innovative techniques being introduced each year.

So, to that end, the provost’s office is seeking input from faculty on how best to recognize such innovation. The options forwarded already are:

                  1. An annual award presented to a faculty member nominated by their                   department/unit/school.

                  2. An annual conference by invitation, where faculty who have innovated in their courses can                    discuss their path to creating the innovation, perhaps attached to TLISI.

                  3. An annual lecture by a nominated faculty member on their teaching philosophy and                   methods.

                  4. A periodic instructional innovation newsletter describing pedagogical inventions, sent to                   all faculty members.

Of course, none of these are mutually exclusive. There are probably other ideas among us.

Our students are increasingly coming to us demanding ways of learning that fit their ambitions – to go deep into a topic in a challenging way, to mix theory and application, and to combine ways of learning within the same course. In response, Georgetown faculty are working harder than ever to exceed those expectations, to the benefit of all.

Recognizing such innovation is proper for Georgetown at this time. It will allow us information to stimulate our own quest to invent new ways of presenting the content of our courses. It will celebrate the success of our colleagues who are models of such innovation.

Discerning Fact, When You’re Far Away from the Observations

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It’s difficult to see any medium of information these days, whether they are print or electronic, without some commentary on what is true and what is not true. This is not a post about that issue directly, but obliquely.

First, what are we talking about: The existence of information widely disseminated in publicly available media that does not comport with other information. Some of this information is easily judged as false, with rather minor checking with more reliable sources. Others require deeper investigation to judge their veracity.

Second, some of the fastest and strongest counter-evidence of false information comes from those who have direct observation of the events that are being described. If a story claims that X occurred at Y location at Z time, but all of those present at Y location around Z time say otherwise, those present know for certain that the story is false. They directly observed whether X occurred or did not occur.

So, if this post is only “obliquely” about the post-fact world, what is it directly about?

One of the dominating forces in the proliferation of the amount of information these days is the rise of digital data sources, so-called big data, high-dimensional in extent, space, and time. The rate of increase in digital data measuring all aspects of the society and the economy is unrelenting and massive. After they are assembled and analyzed they produce information that describes our everyday lives (e.g., changes in consumer prices, nature of job vacancies, impact of education on income, attitudes toward political candidates, media consumption habits, traffic mobility).

Such information is gradually replacing traditional sources of information produced by surveys and censuses. Those sources are slower, more expensive than the data harvested from social media and consumer transaction data. However, those traditional sources were designed with a purpose in mind. The analyst of those data was quite typically part of the design group for the measurements themselves. In that sense, the producer of the information was directly related to the observation step. Good producers approached the data with healthy skepticism and perform well-designed steps of evaluation, prior to the analyses of the data that produced statistical information.

Information produced from big data is often devoid of any insight into exactly how the data were created. They are analyzed for purposes for which they were not intended. The production of “facts” from massive sets of data will be valid only if the analyst really understands the source of the observations, how they were generated, by whom, when, and for what intended reason. The “bigness” of data, absent a deep understanding of how they were produced, has little value.

We are living in an age when high speed computing can generate statistical information in seconds from very, very large digital data by analysts who know little about the data. The “facts” from these analyses require all the scrutiny that we should demand of news stories in popular media. In the extreme, the statistics from these efforts can be no more useful than knowing the mean value of 1,000,000 random digits. If we don’t know how the data were produced, by whom, when, and for what purpose, the statistics can be dangerously misleading about what’s going on in our world.

For discerning truth in popular media and discerning meaning in analyses from big data sources, a skeptical mind, searching for corroborating evidence and scrutinizing documentation of how the “facts” were generated, is critical. Those close to the observations can judge the truth better than those far away from the observations.

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