The power of people in Big Data

Washington, D.C. — For all the focus on the power of data at the 2014 White House Education Datapalooza, there seemed to be just as much talk about people.

big-data“Data doesn’t do anything,” said Nick Sinai, the deputy chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Data is only worth something if you apply it.”

The event, now in its second year, attracted more than 600 educators, researchers, and data analysts to the Ronald Reagan Building on Jan. 15. It served as both a showcase for a variety of data-focused companies and a platform for the U.S. Department of Education to trumpet the Obama administration’s effort to make governmental data open to the public.

If used to its full potential, this “open data” could add as much as $5 trillion per year to the world’s economy, and, according to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the education sector stands to benefit from that surge more than any other.

Higher Education’s Big (Data) Bang: “When you have 5,000 data points, how do you know what question to ask?”

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the administration had called this now-annual gathering because educators and technology companies need to continue finding ways of lowering costs through the use of data.

The average cost of tuition is now increasing at a rate more than 15 times the average rise of household income.

“This is a serious, serious challenge,” Munoz said. “The president has said 2014 is going to be a year of action.”

Through a series of “rapid-fire” presentations, professors and entrepreneurs discussed ways they are utilizing data to help illuminate cheaper, more effective learning paths for students.

Though the services and products covered a wide range of data projects, many of the presenters emphasized a key shared goal: improving human connections in education.

Chip Paucek, co-founder and chief executive officer of 2U, described his company’s goal as “eliminating the back row.” With 2U’s online courses, less than 10 students are in each class, interacting face-to-face with their instructor on an online platform.

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