Thursday, May 17, 2012

Transforming Education

Although the data flow isn’t quite there yet for the personalization of stories in the media space the world of business and public data has matured to the point at which it can support both hyper-local and personal reporting.  More to the point, I would argue this kind of personalized reporting is the only way in which we will be able to draw out the actionable insights that is contained in that data.

In particular, the automatic generation of personalized reporting with feedback and advice holds the promise of transforming the landscape of education.

But what would this mean?

Let me start with an example.  My 14 year old started this year as a freshman in high school and ran into some problems with a Physics test.  The moment this happened, my first reaction was straightforward: go talk to your teacher and find out exactly what you did wrong.  My point was that it could have been anything: issues with framing the problems, misapplication of formulae, etc. Regardless, in order to figure out what to fix, he needed to know what was broken.

It turned out that he had two critical problems.  First, he kept forgetting to include units in his answers. Second, he would make simple computational errors, mostly having to do with flipping the signs in inequalities.  Both problems led to wrong or incomplete answers and were easily fixable.  But it was crucial for him to understand the problem in order to get to the solution.

Now, he goes to one of the better public schools in Chicago and –luckily– has a teacher who is dedicated to his students.  But the reality is that this situation is rare and as a result, this level of personal attention, communication and counsel is often impossible to get to.  In short, a one-on-one conversation doesn’t scale.

This problem is amplified as more and more of our educational practices move online.  It is hard today for all students to get one-on-one attention in the classroom.  As students move online, it is simply impossible.

Narrative Science has begun work to solve this problem.  We are starting with data generated by students who are taking online courses aimed at helping them with standardized tests.  In particular, we have an initial configuration of our Quill™ technology platform that is able to generate personalized reports to students who take practice tests each month that are not only retrospective, but actually provide specific advice as to actions each of them can take to improve their performance.

Which is to say, each student can receive a report after each practice test that goes beyond the expected feedback:
This is helpful, but we can go much deeper than this, because the data from the questions, what they test and the student’s answers is already there.  As a result, reports to the students can also include specific action items that flow from the data associated with each of the test questions, their level of difficulty, how other students are doing on them and what material they are designed to test.  In turn, the students can get highly personalized advice.  Because we know what they have done and what it means, we can provide them with the following:
The communication is personal, on point and contains focused action items. Ironically, although it is personalized, it is generated by a computer.  But when you are talking about massive volume (25,000 customized reports every two months) computer generation is the only way that it is even possible to reach the scale and comprehensiveness that is needed to best serve the students.

Testing and practice are part of the learning process.  By taking the data that is part of tests as they stand (level of difficultly of the questions, material being tested, types of conceptual errors that the wrong answers indicate) and using the results as a driver for focused communication, we can change the shape of educational progress.  By having analysis of that data be part of the process and having focused, personalized reports as the output, we can achieve scale and improve student performance by improving the feedback and the advice they need.

With the computer, we can create personalized communication and advice at scale.  In doing so, we can amplify and transform the educational experience in this country and the world.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Power of Personalization

One of the advantages of automatic generation of content is the fact it provides an opportunity for personalization.  That is, news and information that is aimed directly to an audience of one… you in particular.  Many possibilities come to mind: stock market reports that reference your portfolio, a sports stories that mention players from your home town, medical stories that tie back into medication you are taking.  All of these types of stories could be potentially personalized.

Unfortunately, every time we bring this up, we hear from concerned journalists and experts who track the news business who are worried that such personalization will only amplify the already focused news consumption that is the “news filter bubble.” The worry is that people will only ingest those pieces of news that are directly aligned with their beliefs and interests and ignore content that is outside of their current scope.  If we personalize the content, they argue that this will only make matters worse.  People will read what they already want to read and the fact that the content is personalized will only reinforce their unwillingness to look elsewhere.

If we were putting together a news-based web site and thinking only about how to customize it to present content based on a particular reader’s interests, I would have to agree… that amplifies the bubble.   But we are thinking on a different scale.  We are thinking about the content itself and how it can be personalized and made relevant on the micro level rather than presenting content on the macro level.  We are thinking about how content can be made relevant to an individual even when they might not be already inclined to ingest (or understand) that content in its more generic form.

Recall for a moment 2009 when President Obama was talking about gas prices and suggested that people could save 3% on gas utilization by checking their tire pressure and making sure that under inflated tires were not dragging their mileage numbers down.  He suggested that another 4% could be saved if people kept their cars in tune.  For most people who read about this, his suggestion was abstract at best and he was ridiculed widely for trying to solve a global issue with a very local solution.  Even though he did point out that this would mean that nationally we would save about 10 billion gallons of gas (a national savings of about 30 billion dollars) people had a hard time with the notion.

The problem of course is that these are numbers and ideas that have nothing to do with the individual and so as individuals, we let them slide by.  And the reality is that a number or idea that is ignored is also an action that is not taken.

Imagine instead if the story had been genuinely personalized.  Imagine if the story had been focused on you, your car, your local gas prices and your driving habits.  For me that would be: given that I drive a 2002 Ford Escape, which gets around 16MPG, and I live in Chicago, where gas prices are at about $4.50, and I drive about 1000 miles a month… I could get a story that tells me that I could save about $20 dollars a month or $240 a year by making sure my tires were inflated while I gassed up my car.

This one little piece of personalization changes my relationship with the news I am presented.  It links it to my life and my concerns.  It in no way reinforces a view I already have but opens up the door to understanding how an abstraction is relevant to my day-to-day existence.

Narrative Science is by no means at this point yet.  This limit is not because of the technology; it can handle this sort of personalization just fine, but is instead a limit that comes from the availability the data. But this information, or more to the point, data, becomes more and more available, we will be pushing on how we can generate to that audience of one.  This is not so that people will only read those pieces of news that they already care about.  On the contrary, it is so they will understand through personalization of the news, those ideas and issues that they might have ignored because they could not see their immediate relevance.

Ironically, personalization as Narrative Science has begun to do it has the potential to burst the news filter bubble by letting people understand how facts, events and issues in the world can actually impact them as well as how they impact the world.

Next Week: The audience of one in the world of big data: Transforming Education