Washington, D.C. — Federal and state governments need to do far more to increase the accessibility of education data, open data advocates said during a Jan. 7 event organized by the congressional eLearning Caucus.

openA more open approach to educational data, officials said, would better inform lawmakers on higher-ed policy issues and presumably lead to sensible legislation.

“Many states are so far from having accessible and machine-readable data, it’s crazy,” said Samantha Olivieri, director of data strategy at GreatSchools.org, a website that collects school rankings data.

The discussion was the fifth event organized so far the by the eLearning caucus, headed by Congressman Jared Polis, D-Col., and Congresswoman Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

The caucus officially launched 18 months ago.

“We’ve come a ways since then,” said Polis in January. “More members have direct experience. Awareness is increasing. But we certainly still have a long way to go.”

While other events have focused more broadly on online learning, this discussion was solely concerned with teaching members of congress and their staff about the benefits of open data. Even the subject of data privacy was tabled for the afternoon.

Data has been an increasingly common topic in Washington in recent months, since the Obama administration organized its second annual education Datapalooza and the McKinsey Global Institute released a report stating that open data could “unlock” up to $1 trillion in economic value for the education sector every year.

Jimmy Sarakatsannis, engagement manager at McKinsey Global Institute, said that for data to be considered truly “open,” it must have four characteristics.

“It must be accessible to all,” Sarakatsannis said. “It must be machine-readable. It must be low-cost. And it must have unrestricted rights to be reused and used for innovation.”

Very often, the speakers said, when data is released to the public, it is done so in a file format, like a .PDF, that can only be read by humans. When that’s the case, the data can’t be catalogued, organized, or analyzed by a computer.

Similarly, some data, while deemed publicly available,is only made accessible after a person or organization files a freedom of information act (FOIA) request.

Recently, one think tank FOIAed an agency for data and released the information on a website, said John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!, who moderated the event.

The systems used by the federal government to organize that data is so archaic and complicated, Bailey said, that the same agency now uses the think tank’s website for research rather than its own collection.

Open data can help with a variety of education concerns, Saraktsannis said, including more accurately lining up student skills and the needs of future employers, improving administration of educational systems, and improving the decisions students and faculty make about a student’s career.

Access to more open data can also help inform the decisions made by legislators about education, said Cecilia Retelle, founder of Ranku, a search engine for online degree programs.

But that data has be accurate and applicable to the issue at hand, she warned. When writing legislation regarding online learning, for example, using data about traditional on-campus students, which most education open data is about, would be utilizing information about the wrong type of student.

“Whatever decision you make, whatever policy you push,” Retelle said, “make sure your data is good.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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