Data Literacy in Government: How Are Agencies Enhancing Data Skills?


Randy Barrett at FedTech: “The federal government is vast, and the challenge of understanding its oceans of data grows daily. Rather than hiring thousands of new experts, agencies are moving to train existing employees on how to handle the new frontier.

Data literacy is now a common buzzword, spurred by the publication of the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan last year and the growing empowerment of chief data officers in the government. The document outlines a multiyear, holistic approach to government information that includes building a culture that values data, encouraging strong management and protection and promoting its efficient and appropriate use.

“While the Federal government leads globally in many instances in developing and providing data about the United States and the world, it lacks a robust, integrated approach to using data to deliver on mission, serve the public and steward resources,” the plan notes.

A key pillar of the plan is to “identify opportunities to increase staff data skills,” and it directs all federal agencies to undertake a gap analysis of skills to see where the weaknesses and needs lie….

The Department of Health and Human Services launched its Data Science CoLab in 2017 to boost basic and intermediate data skills. The collaborative program is the first try at a far reaching and cohort-based data-skills training for the agency. In addition to data analytics skills, HHS is currently training hundreds of employees on how to write Python and R.

“Demand for a seat in the Data Science CoLab has grown approximately 800 percent in the past three years, a testament to its success,” says Bishen Singh, a senior adviser in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. “Beyond skill growth, it has led to incredible time and cost savings, as well as internal career growth for past participants across the department.”

The National Science Foundation was less successful with its Data Science and Data Certification Pilot, which had a class of 10 participants from various federal agencies. The workers were trained in advanced analytics techniques, with a focus on applying data tools to uncover meaning and solve Big Data challenges. However, the vendor curriculum used general data sets rather than agency-specific ones.

“As a result, participants found it more difficult to apply their learnings directly to real-world scenarios,” notes the CDO Council’s “Data Skill Training Program: Case Studies” report. The learning modules were mostly virtual and self-paced. Communication was poor with the vendor, and employees began to lag in completing their coursework. The pilot was discontinued.

Most of the training pilot programs were launched as the pandemic closed down government offices. The shift to virtual learning made progress difficult for some students. Another key lesson: Allow workers to use their new skills quickly, while they’re fresh….(More)”.

To solve big issues like climate change, we need to reframe our problems



Essay by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and Jonathan Wichmann: “Imagine you own an office building and your tenants are complaining that the elevator is way too slow. What do you do?

Faced with this problem, most people instinctively jump into solution mode. How can we make the elevator faster? Can we upgrade the motor? Tweak the algorithm? Do we need to buy a new elevator?

The speed of the elevator might be the wrong problem to focus on, however. Talk to an experienced landlord and they might offer you a more elegant solution: put up mirrors next to the elevator so people don’t notice the wait. Gazing lovingly at your own reflection tends to have that effect.

The mirror doesn’t make the elevator faster. It solves a different problem – that the wait is annoying.

Solve the right problem

The slow elevator story highlights an important truth, in that the way we frame a problem often determines which solutions we come up with. By shifting the way we see a problem, we can sometimes find better solutions.

Problem framing is of paramount importance when it comes to tackling the many hard challenges our societies face. And yet, we’re not terribly good at it. In a survey of 106 corporate leaders, 87% said their people waste significant resources solving the wrong problems. When we go to the doctor, we know very well that identifying the right problem is key. Too often, we fail to apply the same thinking to social and global problems.

Three common patterns

So, how do we get better at it? One starting point is to recognise that there are often patterns in the way we frame problems. Get better at recognising those patterns, and you can dramatically improve your ability to solve the right problems. Here are three typical patterns:

1. We prefer framings that allow us to avoid change

People tend to frame problems so they don’t have to change their own behaviour. When the lack of women leading companies first became a prominent concern decades ago, it was often framed as a pipeline problem. Many corporate leaders simply assumed that, once there were enough women in junior positions, the C-suite would follow.

That framing allowed companies to carry on as usual for about a generation until time eventually proved the pipeline theory wrong, or at best radically incomplete. The gender balance among senior executives would surely be better by now if companies had not spent a few decades ignoring other explanations for the skewed ratio….(More)”.

What Should Happen to Our Data When We Die?


Adrienne Matei at the New York Times: “The new Anthony Bourdain documentary, “Roadrunner,” is one of many projects dedicated to the larger-than-life chef, writer and television personality. But the film has drawn outsize attention, in part because of its subtle reliance on artificial intelligence technology.

Using several hours of Mr. Bourdain’s voice recordings, a software company created 45 seconds of new audio for the documentary. The A.I. voice sounds just like Mr. Bourdain speaking from the great beyond; at one point in the movie, it reads an email he sent before his death by suicide in 2018.

“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Morgan Neville, the director, said in an interview with The New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

The time for that panel may be now. The dead are being digitally resurrected with growing frequency: as 2-D projections, 3-D holograms, C.G.I. renderings and A.I. chat bots….(More)”.

Helsinki invites cyclists to collect data on street conditions and earn money


Article at the Mayor.eu: “From Saturday 10 July, cyclists in Helsinki will be able to earn money doing what they love whilst simultaneously helping the municipality repair damaged streets. This was announced on 28 June when the City of Helsinki shared that all residents are invited to take part in a game to map out 300 kilometres of cycling paths in the capital.

In a press release, the City of Helsinki reports that anyone can participate as long as they have a bicycle and a smartphone. To take part, one must simply download the free application Crowdchupa and attach their phone to their bicycle. The device will then record footage of the streets and Artificial Intelligence will be used to identify damage that must be repaired.

To make this even more interesting, the Crowdchupa application will allow participants to earn money. The application features a map which depicts various objects (such as coins and berries) on the streets. Cyclists must drive over these virtual objects to collect them and earn money….(More)”.

Human behaviour: what scientists have learned about it from the pandemic


Stephen Reicher at The Conversation: “During the pandemic, a lot of assumptions were made about how people behave. Many of those assumptions were wrong, and they led to disastrous policies.

Several governments worried that their pandemic restrictions would quickly lead to “behavioural fatigue” so that people would stop adhering to restrictions. In the UK, the prime minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings recently admitted that this was the reason for not locking down the country sooner.

Meanwhile, former health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the government’s failure to provide financial and other forms of support for people to self-isolate was down to their fear that the system “might be gamed”. He warned that people who tested positive may then falsely claim that they had been in contact with all their friends, so they could all get a payment.

These examples show just how deeply some governments distrust their citizens. As if the virus was not enough, the public was portrayed as an additional part of the problem. But is this an accurate view of human behaviour?

The distrust is based on two forms of reductionism – describing something complex in terms of its fundamental constituents. The first is limiting psychology to the characteristics – and more specifically the limitations – of individual minds. In this view the human psyche is inherently flawed, beset by biases that distort information. It is seen as incapable of dealing with complexity, probability and uncertainty – and tending to panic in a crisis.

This view is attractive to those in power. By emphasising the inability of people to govern themselves, it justifies the need for a government to look after them. Many governments subscribe to this view, having established so-called nudge units – behavioural science teams tasked with subtly manipulating people to make the “right” decisions, without them realising why, from eating less sugar to filing their taxes on time. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this approach is limited. As the pandemic has shown, it is particularly flawed when it comes to behaviour in a crisis.

In recent years, research has shown that the notion of people panicking in a crisis is something of a myth. People generally respond to crises in a measured and orderly way – they look after each other.

The key factor behind this behaviour is the emergence of a sense of shared identity. This extension of the self to include others helps us care for those around us and expect support from them. Resilience cannot be reduced to the qualities of individual people. It tends to be something that emerges in groups.

Another type of reductionism that governments adopt is “psychologism” – when you reduce the explanation of people’s behaviour to just psychology…(More)”.

Real-Time Incident Data Could Change Road Safety Forever


Skip Descant at GovTech: “Data collected from connected vehicles can offer near real-time insights into highway safety problem areas, identifying near-misses, troublesome intersections and other roadway dangers.

New research from Michigan State University and Ford Mobility, which tracked driving incidents on Ford vehicles outfitted with connected vehicle technology, points to a future of greatly expanded understanding of roadway events, far beyond simply reading crash data.

“Connected vehicle data allows us to know what’s happening now. And that’s a huge thing. And I think that’s where a lot of the potential is, to allow us to actively monitor the roadways,” said Meredith Nelson, connected and automated vehicles analyst with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The research looked at data collected from Ford vehicles in the Detroit metro region equipped with connected vehicle technology from January 2020 to June 2020, drawing on data collected by Ford’s Safety Insights platform in partnership with StreetLight Data. The data offers insights into near-miss events like hard braking, hard acceleration and hard corners. In 2020 alone, Ford has measured more than a half-billion events from tens of millions of trips.

Traditionally, researchers relied on police-reported crash data, which had its drawbacks, in part, because of the delay in reporting, said Peter Savolainen, an engineering professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University, with a research focus looking at road user behavior….(More)”.

Why People Are So Awful Online


Roxane Gay at the New York Times: “When I joined Twitter 14 years ago, I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, attending graduate school. I lived in a town of around 4,000 people, with few Black people or other people of color, not many queer people and not many writers. Online is where I found a community beyond my graduate school peers. I followed and met other emerging writers, many of whom remain my truest friends. I got to share opinions, join in on memes, celebrate people’s personal joys, process the news with others and partake in the collective effervescence of watching awards shows with thousands of strangers.

Something fundamental has changed since then. I don’t enjoy most social media anymore. I’ve felt this way for a while, but I’m loath to admit it.

Increasingly, I’ve felt that online engagement is fueled by the hopelessness many people feel when we consider the state of the world and the challenges we deal with in our day-to-day lives. Online spaces offer the hopeful fiction of a tangible cause and effect — an injustice answered by an immediate consequence. On Twitter, we can wield a small measure of power, avenge wrongs, punish villains, exalt the pure of heart….

Lately, I’ve been thinking that what drives so much of the anger and antagonism online is our helplessness offline. Online we want to be good, to do good, but despite these lofty moral aspirations, there is little generosity or patience, let alone human kindness. There is a desperate yearning for emotional safety. There is a desperate hope that if we all become perfect enough and demand the same perfection from others, there will be no more harm or suffering.

It is infuriating. It is also entirely understandable. Some days, as I am reading the news, I feel as if I am drowning. I think most of us do. At least online, we can use our voices and know they can be heard by someone.

It’s no wonder that we seek control and justice online. It’s no wonder that the tenor of online engagement has devolved so precipitously. It’s no wonder that some of us have grown weary of it….(More)”

Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics


Mark Dunbar at the Hedgehog Review: “Identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are the beginning and the end of the self. They are how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. One is a “nerd” or a “jock” or a “know-it-all.” One is “liberal” or “conservative,” “religious” or “secular,” “white” or “black.” Identities are the means of escape and the ties that bind. They direct our thoughts. They are modes of being. They are an ingredient of the self—along with relationships, memories, and role models—and they can also destroy the self. Consume it. The Jungians are right when they say people don’t have identities, identities have people. And the Lacanians are righter still when they say that our very selves—our wishes, desires, thoughts—are constituted by other people’s wishes, desires, and thoughts. Yes, identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are expressions of inner selves, and a way the outside gets in.

Our contemporary politics is diseased—that much is widely acknowledged—and the problem of identity is often implicated in its pathology, mostly for the wrong reasons. When it comes to its role in our politics, identity is the chief means by which we substitute behavior for action, disposition for conviction. Everything is rendered political—from the cars we drive to the beer we drink—and this rendering lays bare a political order lacking in democratic vitality. There is an inverse relationship between the rise of identity signaling and the decline of democracy. The less power people have to influence political outcomes, the more emphasis they will put on signifying their political desires. The less politics effects change, the more politics will affect mood.

Dozens of books (and hundreds of articles and essays) have been written about the rising threat of tribalism and group thinking, identity politics, and the politics of resentment….(More)”.

We need to regulate mind-reading tech before it exists


Abel Wajnerman Paz at Rest of the World: “Neurotechnology” is an umbrella term for any technology that can read and transcribe mental states by decoding and modulating neural activity. This includes technologies like closed-loop deep brain stimulation that can both detect neural activity related to people’s moods and can suppress undesirable symptoms, like depression, through electrical stimulation.

Despite their evident usefulness in education, entertainment, work, and the military, neurotechnologies are largely unregulated. Now, as Chile redrafts its constitution — disassociating it from the Pinochet surveillance regime — legislators are using the opportunity to address the need for closer protection of people’s rights from the unknown threats posed by neurotechnology. 

Although the technology is new, the challenge isn’t. Decades ago, similar international legislation was passed following the development of genetic technologies that made possible the collection and application of genetic data and the manipulation of the human genome. These included the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights in 1997 and the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data in 2003. The difference is that, this time, Chile is a leading light in the drafting of neuro-rights legislation.

In Chile, two bills — a constitutional reform bill, which is awaiting approval by the Chamber of Deputies, and a bill on neuro-protection — will establish neuro-rights for Chileans. These include the rights to personal identity, free will, mental privacy, equal access to cognitive enhancement technologies, and protection against algorithmic bias….(More)”.

COVID data is complex and changeable – expecting the public to heed it as restrictions ease is optimistic


Manuel León Urrutia at The Conversation: “I find it tempting to celebrate the public’s expanding access to data and familiarity with terms like “flattening the curve”. After all, a better informed society is a successful society, and the provision of data-driven information to the public seems to contribute to the notion that together we can beat COVID.

But increased data visibility shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as increased data literacy. For example, at the start of the pandemic it was found that the portrayal of COVID deaths in logarithmic graphs confused the public. Logarithmic graphs control for data that’s growing exponentially by using a scale which increases by a factor of ten on the y, or vertical axis. This led some people to radically underestimate the dramatic rise in COVID cases.

Two graphs comparing linear with logorithmic curves
A logorithmic graph (on the right) flattens exponential curves, which can confuse the public. LSE

The vast amount of data we now have available doesn’t even guarantee consensus. In fact, instead of solving the problem, this data deluge can contribute to the polarisation of public discourseOne study recently found that COVID sceptics use orthodox data presentation techniques to spread their controversial views, revealing how more data doesn’t necessarily result in better understanding. Though data is supposed to be objective and empirical, it has assumed a political, subjective hue during the pandemic….

This is where educators come in. The pandemic has only strengthened the case presented by academics for data literacy to be included in the curriculum at all educational levels, including primary. This could help citizens navigate our data-driven world, protecting them from harmful misinformation and journalistic malpractice.

Data literacy does in fact already feature in many higher education roadmaps in the UK, though I’d argue it’s a skill the entire population should be equipped with from an early age. Misconceptions about vaccine efficacy and the severity of the coronavirus are often based on poorly presented, false or misinterpreted data. The “fake news” these misconceptions generate would spread less ferociously in a world of data literate citizens.

To tackle misinformation derived from the current data deluge, the European Commission has funded projects such as MediaFutures and YourDataStories….(More)”.