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The official blog of @SCHEVResearch at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Discussions about our work, national higher education data policy, and highlights about the data we publish.


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The Politics of Information

by Tod Massa 27. September 2013 07:36

This is one of my favorite topics of thought and discussion, the politics of information.  I am involved in creating a lot of information. I mean, really a lot, of information. I daresay there are few Virginians really aware of how much information we publish at SCHEV Research. In fact, I suspect few of our institutional users are aware of all of it. There is enough that sometimes I forget what is out there.

We spend a lot of time thinking about what to create, about what matters. We are aware of quotes such as:

 “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” (Einstein) 

“The things that get measured are the things that get done.” (LeBouef)

These are important guideposts to what we do. We are very aware of the limits of the data we have. There are only so many stories we can meaningfully tell. There are a lot of stories we can tell that are meaningless, so what’s the point?

“Today knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement.” (Drucker)

I don’t know the full context in which Peter Drucker was speaking when he said this, but I see this as being a broad statement about what we try to do. We create and publish information with the goal of increasing access to opportunity and advancement in, and through, higher education. Virginia’s colleges and universities represent extraordinary opportunities for individual advancement and success. They also represent extraordinary opportunities for advancement of the Commonwealth.

So, we try to generate information that matters, with as little bias as possible. This means that we sometimes put out stuff that is very broad and exposes a lot of bumps in an effort to be both comprehensive and fair. The upcoming debt reports are like that. A lot of data and a lot of questions along the lines of, “Why does this matter?” and the answer is this: we don’t know until we, and a lot of other people, look at the data. Differences in borrowing by domicile, gender, race/ethnicity may not matter much, but until we look, how do we know?

There is a risk to looking. There is a greater risk to looking publicly. So we try to act responsibly and we think about everything we publish before we do so. 

There is one other quote that I saw over the summer in a tweet that I believe was from Kevin Carey of the New American Foundation, unfortunately I can’t find it right now. It goes like this, “Big data allows us to find statistically significant differences for small groups that are completely meaningless for policy.” 

This is the kind of thing that keeps me awake. Institutions and programs should work to address small groups, state policy generally should not. This is one of my biggest concerns about the misuse of our data. Let’s keep an appropriate focus, shall we?


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