Big, Secret and Malleable Data

There has been talk, of late, indicating we are moving to a future determined by Big Data where computer programmes trawl through massive amounts of data to herald outcomes of ‘high’ or ‘low’ probability.


For instance… our wonderful and very secretive chums at the National Security Agency in the US have just been dumped in it by an incredibly brave whistleblower has released a single powerpoint announcing to the world the arrival of the Prism system. The job of this system is to trawl the internet – emails and other web traffic – to find out whether you are a threat. Google, Yahoo, Skype, Facebook and many, many other large interweb operators are denying giving the NSA access to their servers. The NSA say powerpoint talks about “unfettered” access. Are they are getting in their like the spies they are – secretly and without permission – or are they have permission to access the servers?

Either way, your personal email communications, your data and your search history is up for grabs. Without you ever giving any signed consent or other permission. Unless, of course, our interweb overlords have snuck something through within their terms and conditions…

But that would never happen here, would it?

Yup. And to your children.

Say… whaaaat?

Our Ministry of Education via our political leaders are currently steering the ship in the opposite direction it should be going, and there is much of this data collection going on. Your child’s data is currently being collated and maintained on servers in Wellington. Every year about this time the data is crunched and national standards are released. This week saw the second such release of information.

The Global Education Reform Movement – GERM – relies on such data collection. Because they have little in the way of pedagogical research to support their ideology, or their arguments, they have to rely on massive sets of data which show minute “trends” so they can announce, “Look! There’s a problem!! 0.45% more of this ethnic group have failed compared with another ethnic group so we are right and this must change etc.”

We teachers collect data all the time. It informs our teaching. We are able to provide individual learning programmes to our students based on the assessment data we collect. Because the data we base our national standards judgements is based on the same data sets the ministry are heading in the direction of requiring we teachers to support our judgements and make them more “equal” by using a national computer-based assessment tool.

This “tool” is called the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT). What does it do?

A progress and consistency tool… …to support teachers’ professional judgments in relation to the National Standards, and to improve the measurement of learner progress over time.

This tool is going improve the measurement of learner progress. How will it do this? Exactly the same way the NSA works out if your joke email about Bin Laden make you a terrorist or not – by allowing computer programmes to analyse the data and make predictions / suggestions about most likely outcomes. Algorithms will work out whether I’m correct in my professional judgements or not (ultimately they will work out whether I get performance pay as well – another story for another time).

What this also means is that data about your child, collected by their teacher, is going to be stored on computers in Wellington, or that wonderfully secure server called the Cloud. This is the only way they are going to be able to analyse data over the years your child is at school.

So I ask you this: have you ever signed any consent form allowing the New Zealand government to gather educational data on your child and use this data to track your child’s performance over time? Are you comfortable with the government holding data on your child for the time they are at school?

Let me put it another way. Would you allow the Ministry of Health – without consent – to collect data on your child’s illness to ascertain whether or not your doctor was making the correct diagnosis? Would you allow them to store this data on servers?

The government is also taking advantage of the fact that teachers are incredibly overworked and stressed delivering their programmes to students AND having to make national standards assessments. PaCT and to a lesser degree e-asTTle (an online assessment tool) are being promoted by the ministry because they know they will make a teacher’s job easier.

It’s true. It does make our job easier. I have used e-asTTle this year and it spat out what levels the students were at and all I had to do is sit down and choose the questions I wanted. The current issue with e-asTTle is the marks being spat out were inflated and the ministry decided to scale them during the holidays when it turned out the system was artificially inflating figures.

This issue of data manipulation by government-run assessment databases (e-asTTle) has been covered at length by Allan Alach over at The Daily Blog and Kelvin Smythe. With the GERM’s use of mistruths and augmented facts it’s not a great leap in logic to consider they are inflating the figures to use during the next election campaign timed for the end of 2014.

For an incumbent government under the hammer over a range of education policies and decisions, to have “success” to be able to herald with spin-tacular fanfare ahead of an election campaign will be most welcomed from their point of view.

In short, this current government is prepared to collect data on your children without consent, hold it for years while they are at school (and perhaps beyond), and possibly manipulate it for their own political needs. All without your express written consent.

PaCT will be mandatory for schools to use in 2015.

Mr B



One thought on “Big, Secret and Malleable Data

  1. Great post Boonman. Love how you include your sources. A big gold star for you young man!

    But seriously, this is concerning about the collection of data and how it is being used/manipulated and where they are storing it. If the disasters at ACC, MSD and MOE thru privacy breaches and dodgy ICT systems are anything to go by I don’t like it.

    What is concerning is that a health cloud based data storage system is on its way. How hackable will it be? How will access be controlled?

    Big questions and issues to consider.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s