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UN tackles socio-economic crises with big data

Julia King | June 4, 2013
United Nations researchers had a sobering realization in 2010. For all of the official data and reports collected by the group's member nations and various UN programs and agencies, precious little of the data that supports the organization's operations was truly up to date.

Creating a Student Safety Net
An educated workforce is absolutely critical to competing successfully in the global economy. Yet the U.S. ranks lower than 10th among countries in education attainment. Only about 35% of students who begin a four-year college degree program complete their education where they began their studies. Moreover, over the course of the past 20 to 30 years, retention and completion rates have steadily dropped at a time when global economic competition has increased exponentially.

"I'd personally position the problem as a national crisis," says Josh Baron, senior academic technology officer at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The Open Academic Analytics Initiative, an Educause project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureate, aims to significantly reduce education interruption and dropout rates by identifying at-risk students via predictive analytics and then proactively intervening to support these students before they leave school.

Launched in May 2011, the OAAI collects data and log information from member schools' learning management systems and couples it with student aptitude and demographic data. A predictive model, built entirely in open source, is then applied to this data to identify at-risk students.

To build the model, researchers analyzed several semesters of data from Marist College students. Next, the team used BI systems, primarily Pentaho open-source software, to put the analytics systems together.

"We thought it important to have an open-source solution to reduce costs of ownership so that other institutions could adopt it," Baron explains. "The other big advantage of open source is everything becomes transparent and open to other institutions, especially the predictive model, which we've released to other institutions."

The OAAI team applied its model to 2,200 students over a period of two semesters, identifying those who might benefit from interventions, such as messages from instructors that express concern for a student's performance and/or additional online academic support.

In the end, the OAAI team determined that such interventions had a significantly positive effect, resulting in a 7% higher final course grade for students who received them.

"We far exceeded our expectations in terms of impact of the project," Baron says. "We weren't necessarily expecting to see statistically significant outcomes, so this has given us great encouragement."

Going forward, Baron says OAAI is seeking additional funding to continue the program, which is focused on low-income students who often drop out of school for economic reasons.

Bringing Social Issues to Light
Socially sensitive issues such as domestic violence, foeticide and child sexual abuse are taboo as topics of discussion in much of India. But these are precisely the issues that Bollywood actor and filmmaker Aamir Khan took on as topics of his TV show Satyamev Jayate, which translates to Truth Alone Prevails. The show's goal was to prompt discussion about these rarely talked about societal problems and to learn more about how Indian people thought and felt about them. It would be a first step toward resolving them.


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