Open data means providing unrestricted data to everyone. There is a lot of data within the public sector and within science that are not as useful to benefit society as they could be if they were available to anyone at all. As one example, if we wish to understand the elements of the integrated system that is the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere, the way those elements interact and how they have changed with time, it is necessary to be able to collect and analyze environmental data from all parts of the world and from many sources. In the public sector in recent years, many state and local governments have put effort into open data projects that would inspire developers to create apps and find ways to use public data to bring value to their communities. (It should be noted that the open data movement is not about getting data that people value as private and sharing them.) How can an existing open data set be used to create a project that highlights the idea of open data culture and demonstrates its benefits to society?
Jennifer Hackett, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
New York University
The open data group decided to address its challenge by proposing an app that could be used to prevent miscommunications across cultures. The
app would provide alerts when a potential miscommunication might occur, such as using a gesture that has different meanings across cultures. The challenge of using a huge data set for the public good was at the core of the team’s thinking about important issues in large open data sets.
Conception of the app was made possible by the resources to which the team members already had access. Two members of the team have access to either a powerful, massive data set (data from assessments that came from massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which the team member develops) or a strong analytical tool (an algorithm to analyze spoken or written language for a variety of factors, including vocabulary and inflection). It was quickly decided that any proposal the team created needed to take advantage of these databases.
The team agreed that the best way to combine the available data set and analytical tool would be by studying the efficacy of language in teaching and outreach. By focusing on extremely successful professors who had consistent positive evaluations from students that were supported by quantitative data (such as student enthusiasm, retention rates, and success), the project would analyze their communication styles to determine what made them so successful. The open data set would come from the MOOC assessments paired with the recorded lectures, which are archived and digitized by definition as they are online coursework.
Initially, the intent behind this project was to show that when information is openly available it can be analyzed in ways that are qualitatively valuable and beneficial to society. Prior to the conceptualization of the Prism app, this proposal would have been for a study with no greater end goal outside of providing both qualitative and quantitative data to teachers about the traits of highly successful online educators.
Around this point the term “precision communication” was introduced. While this was adopted as a rallying term for what the team envisioned, it also raised some concerns due to its similarity to the idea behind targeted ads. The goals of the initial project—targeting language to the audience so that a message is communicated most effectively to the people most likely to be interested in it—were nearly identical to the goals of targeted ads. As the underlying goal was still to help the public in some meaningful way, the team decided to focus on finding a way to differentiate their plan from targeted advertising.
The team wanted to use communication analysis and information from the MOOCs. Establishing the most useful application of this analysis took
some discussion. An early idea was to study effective teachers and use that information to train retired professionals and older teachers to be more effective communicators in the classroom. This would not only benefit students by providing them better teachers, but would instill a sense of purpose in the retirees who became teachers or assisted in distance learning. This same communications training could be given to doctors and medical professionals, who would then be able to better communicate with their own patients. A way to build a stronger, multiuniversity data set was also proposed. The only way to access this data-driven retraining technology would be by making your data open access so they can be studied.
After a consultation, the team chose to add a larger end goal that the initial study would build toward. International research partnerships are standard, but miscommunication across cultures is inevitable, especially because there are so many international and cross-cultural interactions taking place at any given time. This end goal would be an app called Prism, which stands for Prevention of Intercultural Sensitivity Malfunctions, which would help prevent miscommunications across cultures.
The proposed app works by seeking out contentious or easily misunderstood phrases. The initial study of students and teachers participating in MOOCs would help distinguish words, phrases, and gestures that the app should search for, as well as alternatives for them that would be less susceptible to misunderstanding. As one team member said, the goal would be “to speed up communication via data.” The app would be a natural next step in improving the efficiency and ease of communication. It would take both the speaker’s culture and the audience’s cultures into account to ensure effective communication.
This particular Seed Team worked together effectively from the start, with no major arguments and plenty of positive, encouraging discourse. Two members of the team provided the bulk of the driving power in terms of what tools the team had and what sort of analysis the team could do, while three members served as analysts who helped refine the idea to be helpful across multiple venues (healthcare, private business, and cross-cultural international research). After the final pitch, there was strong enthusiasm shown to continue working on and refining the idea for a formal proposal, a goal that all members of the team had in mind throughout the entirety of the conference.
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