Data, Data, Everywhere

Boy surprised by Data
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data Data, Data, Everywhere

A recent article in The Economist began with the following introduction:

When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work in 2000, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy. Now, a decade later, its archive contains a whopping 140 terabytes of information. A successor, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to come on stream in Chile in 2016, will acquire that quantity of data every five days.

Such astronomical amounts of information can be found closer to Earth too. Wal-Mart, a retail giant, handles more than 1 million customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress. Facebook, a social-networking website, is home to 40 billion photos. And decoding the human genome involves analyzing 3 billion base pairs—which took ten years the first time it was done, in 2003, but can now be achieved in one week.

The article proceeds to outline challenges presented by the overabundance of information. While data managers struggle to store such vast amounts of data, most are concerned that the proliferation of data does not increase the availability of information but actually decreases it by making it almost impossible to access the specific information one might want.

Kenneth Cukier, the author of the Economist article notes:

Chief information officers (CIOs) have become somewhat more prominent in the executive suite, and a new kind of professional has emerged, the data scientist, who combines the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under mountains of data. Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, predicts that the job of statistician will become the “sexiest” around. Data, he explains, are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.

The implications for education are striking. What we now know is that not only will our students be challenged to filter the irrelevant information from the relevant, but also to sift through increasingly massive amounts of relevant information to find the answers to their questions and the solutions to their problems.

I would argue that the latter, newer, challenge requires a very different educational approach than the former. For filtering irrelevant from relevant requires the ability to analyze the data. While in itself no simple feat, technology itself can be of significant assistance in this regard. The ever-evolving search engine has given us the ability to focus on the information we need and take us where we want to go today. However, sifting through mountains of relevant information is quite different. Analyzing the data to find the answer to your problem will become almost impossible. Information overload will force us to change our focus from looking for the right answers, to understanding the right questions to ask. The new skill that is required is the ability to analyze the problem itself! More than ever we must teach our students not only to understand, store and process information, but also educate in ways that force them to think deeply about the nature of the problems we face.

The move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age has occurred at a pace that not only was not imagined, but, in truth, could not be imagined. Echoing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner one might say: Data, data every where, nor any a drop to think. The extent to which we are able to educate a generation of deep thinkers will predict the progress of our information-saturated society.

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