The #SOTU and measuring the marigolds

Listening to President Obama's State of the Union (#SOTU in twitterese) address last night, I had several reactions. I won't share most of them with you, though as someone who has played an insignificant role - mostly as a learner - as foundations in California and local community groups in San Francisco work to build support for early childhood education, his call for national access to pre-K got a big shoutout in my home.

One response I will share was this, "Does any American President ever talk about other forms of opportunity besides economic?" As someone who proudly holds three degrees in American history, I should know the answer to this, but I don't. I do, however, know how to find out. I plan, eventually, to go read all the #SOTUs and see what I can learn. Or perhaps I can use Google Ngram and find out that way (a great opportunity to play "digital humanities scholar").  Anyway....

Whether or not Presidents talk about it, other people define opportunity in a variety of ways. In response to a tweet, Victoria Vrana pointed me to this "Opportunity Index," put out by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, a project of the Social Sciences Research Council. It looks at economic opportunity, but also opportunities for education, health, voting access, and community cohesion. These data are collected at the community level, and there are great possibilities for using this information locally.

Speaking of measuring, the President's announcement that his administration would release a college scorecard, rating higher education institutions on value, received a much more skeptical reception.  "Really? How? With what data?" And "Who will do analysis?" And, "What does US News and World Report have to say about that? And, "Watch out, my beloved alma maters."

Here's what I could find on the new College Scorecard. It has a nice interface, clearly targeting potential students and their families. It's actually called the "College Affordability and Transparency Center College Scorecard" - and it analyzes "value" along criteria such as cost, graduation rate, loan default rate, and median borrowing. It will eventually have information on jobs held by graduates, but for both Yale University and the University of Phoenix, (the two I checked*) it didn't have this information yet. If you search for it, you can find the link that will let you download the data sets in either excel or CSV format (link is at bottom of page on each university result). All the data come from the US Department of Education (US ED). When you click on the More Information link on each page a pop-up appears with the data sources and calculations for each of the criteria listed.

What you don't get is a single place to compare Yale to UPhoenix side-by-side. When you download the excel file you do get all the info on 3990 universities, listed alphabetically within States. If you are so inclined you can do your own side-by-side analysis (of the selected data points). You can also take these data and plug them in somewhere else (like Many Eyes, and play with visualizations). When you click on the link provided for more information on "median borrowing" on the Yale page, it takes you to Yale's Office of Financial Aid, which features a "net price calculator" on its home page. When you click on the equivalent link on the U of Phoenix page it takes you to the US Department of Education's page on "repaying your loan."

I realize most users may not run the same search I did, but the site needs to be more helpful to users in comparing the information that is provided school by school.** It should allow users to compare schools side by side, or by specific criteria across several schools. That said, in the end I was impressed that US ED had put this site together and was sharing the information in this way. It's a good example of putting public data (all the data comes from US ED) to work for the people (that is, for us).

Both the College Scorecard and the Opportunity Index show the power of accessible data. I hope these tools are useful for their intended purposes. I also appreciate how they represent our changing relationships to large data sets, how we can ask new questions, how quickly we can plug datasets from one site into another, and how we can begin to look at our individual organizations in much greater context, using shared data sets.

I learned a lot about these possibilities from the participants in my breakout session on "data as a public good" at the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar. Being able to see your own organization and your own work in broader context is not the future, it's the present. I believe, as I've said many times and written in the Blueprint series, this ability will change how we define problems and opportunities. It will shift what we ask and when we ask it, what answers we seek and the measures with which we seek to answer them. It can help us shift who is part of asking these questions and implementing the solutions (but we need to be deliberate about this). It's a big part of what I've called "data-first philanthropy" (video link). It's why I'm thrilled to be on the advisory board of DataKind, which I think can help us get past "data first philanthropy" to something closer to "open source philanthropy," and, even more important, to collective problem solving.

In the end, I realized that the #SOTU gave a shout-out to early childhood education, but the College Scorecard is a demonstration of the potential of open data.


*The former is my undergraduate alma mater. The latter is the first for-profit college that came to my mind.

**Last week I emailed a friend of mine, also an alum, to enlist her support in writing a letter to Mother Yale about the news that the University (and Penn) had filed suit against alums who had defaulted on their Perkins loans. So don't take this as an unmitigated "Boola Boola" post.





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