Data education

Minister’s Reply to Primary Online Database Complaint

I received the following reply to my email complaint in relation to the Primary Online Database (POD). Link takes you to the full letter. The fundamental questions still remain unanswered.

My comments are interspaced with text from the Ministers  letter

On retention of data

The current retention policy for Primary Online Database (POD) data is for records to be maintained for the longer of either the period up to the pupil’s 30th Birthday or for a period of ten years since the student was last enrolled in a primary school

The Department’s retention policy is for audit and accounting purposes as pupil’s data is used in the allocation of teaching posts and funding to schools. The policy also serves to trace retention trends in the education system, is important for longitudinal research and policy formation, as well as being an important statistical indicator nationally and internationally.

Aggregate and not individual data is used for the majority of these purposes

This reads to me as “we’ll hold data until the kids are 30 even though we only need aggregate information for statistical purposes.”

There is a clear conflict  in need between aggregate information, information for allocation of resources while children are in school and holding detailed information until the children are 30 (or possibly longer given we don’t know what processes will be in place to remove the information in 18 years time).

On the racist nature of the cultural/ethnic categories

We are committed to reviewing the questions asked in POD. As part of this we have reviewed our question in POD on the collection of information on Ethnic or Cultural Background. We feel that the question used to collect data on ethnic or cultural background should be harmonised across all the education partners and other bodies who collect this type of information. As the CSO is the National Statistical Office, we are taking our lead from them. However, while the question asked in POD is not the exact same as the question asked in the Census of Population, it is based on the question.

I’d describe this as “some of the questions we asked were a bit racist so we’re changing the question and taking our lead from the CSO”.  It’s important to note that the CSO’s questions is problematic

In this regard the Statistics Section of the Department met with the CSO’s Census of Population Division to discuss concerns such as yours. They too accept that the variant of the ethnicity question on the 2016 census may fall short of what could be expected in today’s multi-racial Ireland. Unfortunately, given the no-change’ census approach being adopted for Census of Population 2016 it is not possible to change the CSO question at this stage. However the CSO has indicated that it is considering holding a seminar to examine how the data in this area can be improved from the point of view of maximising the number of write-in responses to increase the variety of ethnic description captured,

As pointed out on Twitter the Religion question on the Census is also problematic and the CSO don’t appear to be anxious to change it.  The Religion question in the POD is similarly problematic.

In terms of the complaints (in italics) I made to the Minister and the Department this is how I’d summarise it

1. Excessive retention of data. The retention of data until Children are 30 years of age is clearly excessive.

Not addressed.

2. Not using data for the purpose it was collected. I shared data with my school for very specific purposes. I have not consented to transferring this information to the Department. As it is not clear why some of this information is being collected at all the is a clear lack of purpose in collection of the data

Not addressed. The answer here seems to be we’ll decide what is appropriate even if we clearly don’t understand why we’re collecting the information.

3. Collection of unnecessary highly sensitive information. Some of the data being requested is highly sensitive (medical, psychological data) and there is no clear grounds for collecting this information

Not addressed at all 

4. Lack of appropriate security and safeguards around the data (including transmission of the data between schools and the department) It is not clear how or where the data is being retained and stored.  And the proposed mechanisms for transmission of data are hard to implement and easy to make mistakes around

Partly addressed in terms of storage of data but not addressed in terms of either access to information or in terms of transmission of data to schools and retention in schools.

5. Data is supposed to be accurate. There will be an inability to contain accurate information in light of free format text data and any information can be held in these fields.

Partially and poorly addressed. 

The “Notes” area is for schools’ use only, it will only be accessible to the school where the child is currently enrolled, and will not be transferable from one school to the next if the child is moving school. It is intended to keep administrative information which is required at school level only.

Its not clear why this data field is here and why if data for schools use only is being held in a central database and will be held until the child is 30.

6. The categorisation of the data on ethnic and cultural grounds is clearly racist and undermines the ability to store accurate information. The usage of the data for state purposes is also undermined by the racist classification scheme.

Partially addressed as discussed above.

7. The Department is acting beyond its power. The Department of Welfare hasn’t been informed or consented to the use of PPSN

Addressed in terms of the formal right to use the information through Dept of Social Welfare. Not addressed in terms of retention of the data.


People personal

Apples and Energy. Motivation and the Úll 5K.

Its not often that you can say a conference helped change your life. Especially a technology conference with no mind or body changing gurus in sight. Úll was that conference for me. So when Dermot Daly (the other Dermot) asked me to write a blog post for Úll about running a 5K for at last year’s conference I was only happy to write. He also mentioned the theme of this year’s conference is around the subject of motivation. The piece below is thoughts on motivation, running the 5K and Úll itself. Turns out this wasn’t quite what I started out to write.

After two years of not going to Úll (and regretting it) last year I decided to go. At some point probably early in March I got an email saying that they were going to run a charity 5K at Úll. I was badly out of condition and badly overweight at the time, and hadn’t done any jogging, cycling, or proper exercise in quite a while.

The initial thoughts were a mix of “bugger I’ll look silly if I don’t do it” and “If Dermot and Sasha are doing it sure I’d better give it a try” combined with “well it is for charity”. There were about 5 weeks to Úll when I started training. I downloaded a couple of Couch to 5K apps, picked one of them and started the program a couple of days later. After a couple of weeks, I bought a new pair of runners. By the time I got to Úll last year I was up to about 3K and was about 4 to 5 weeks into my 9 week program. The morning of the run, I turned up in the lobby of the hotel somehow expecting most of the people at the conference, a little over 200 people, to be there. It was probably in the region of 30 people who turned up.

With 30 others I went out to do the circuit on the beautiful grounds of Lyrath House Hotel. I jogged about 3 of the 5K and walked the other 2K. I may have taken at least one wrong turn on the way and I definitely finished last. Despite
that, I was glad I did it. If nothing else I finished it. What happened next is the interesting part. I kept jogging after Úll.

At that stage, I had about 5 weeks of exercise and I was starting to lose weight. In conjunction with the couch to 5K I started modifying my diet. The starting point for that was the very scientific “stop eating so much crap”. Over the course of the next couple of months, between April of 2014 and December 2014 I lost 3 stone,and managed to run 5K on a regular basis. The two images below sum up what happened over those few months.
Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 19.36.52            dermot_600_x_800-copy

I did a Phoenix Park “Run with Ray” and a “Run in the Dark 5K”. And at this point I enjoy it. I’ve thought a lot over the past few days about the question of the motivation. The motivation initially was not wanting to be embarrassed. (At least that’s what I told myself). Recently Stewart Butterfield the founder of the
messaging app Slack said he didn’t know why Slack had taken off while his last two startups had fizzled.“ I have no fucking idea” was the exact quote. Thinking about my motivation I realised that really I hadn’t really thought or understood my own motivation very well.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it. In the end I think it comes down to three things. It’s a combination of curiosity,energy and opportunity. And I believe a lot of motivation works this way. I read a very interesting book on Willpower a year or so ago. There may have been a dubious assumption that hey if I read a book on Willpower maybe it’ll improve my Willpower but some of the messages did seep in. One key message at the center of that book was that Willpower is related to energy.

Make too many decisions during a day and the quality of decisions you make and your ability to make decisions falls. People talk about grit very often, about digging deep in motivating yourself to do anything. I think the vast body of evidence show that this is victorian nonsense. The idea of will and energy are more important. Mentally last year I had the energy and the space to start an exercise program. For too many years I didn’t. Or to be honest I had prioritised
others things to a point where I hadn’t given myself the space or the energy to

When I left my previous role in a startup called Storyful at the end of 2012 I was overweight (see photo above and note the before photo is me after I lost one stone). A decade of young kids capped with 3 years of a startup had left me more than a bit out of shape. A very smart friend of mine told me it’d take 6-12 months to recover after Storyful. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. In retrospect it’s energy he’s talking about. You have a finite amount and when you burn the candle at both ends and in the middle for too long you use that energy up. And create a rather large debt that needs to be paid off.

You have the basic energy for most things but the energy required to exercise and lose weight takes a while to come back. Time heals. If we let it. Having the energy isn’t enough though. For me Úll brought the curiosity and the opportunity at a time when I had the energy. “What would it be like to do this?” “Would apps on the phone help?” Curiosity, energy and opportunity intersected together.

I think curiosity is linked to energy too. If you’ve ever been really sick in bed and too ill to read all those books you’ve been stockpiling you’ll understand what I mean. I also think curiosity is the most human traits and I don’t think that we can be motivated without curiosity. (Its why the only good form of motivation is intrinsic and why extrinsic motivation never really works).

That has implications for schools and work and product development as well as running the 5K. I attempted to lose weight any number of times over the last decade. All attempts unsuccessful. And I tried all sorts of things to motivate myself. When I look at it now some of the elements were missing at any point in the past. Now I’m aware of what I need to exercise and to lose weight. And its not apps. Apps help. Spotify playlists and multiple running apps accompany me on my runs.

And the idea that what we need to get fit and healthy are apps is a naive idea. It’s a Silicon Valley solution to a different problem (there are a lot of those where we use technology to solve symptoms rather than root causes). At this point I’m reasonably comfortably doing 5 or 6K a few times a week. It’s now gotten to the point where I will change my routine to fit in getting in a 5K.

During the summer, the long evenings, running at 6, 7, even 8:00 in the evening was fine. It’s harder in winter. Days when there is too much going on are harder to run than days when work is at an even tempo. I’ve learned to manage my energy better. A poor nights sleep the night before and it not so much there is no motivation to run (there isn’t) but that there’s no energy to run. Sometimes all you need to do is grind out the run. Flat and all as it might be sometimes the goal is like the 5K in Úll, just finishing the damn thing.

Finding the space to run creates more energy and headspace to do other things better. Now I knew that but somehow forgot it along the way. I still have weight to lose, but I’ve made a good start and I feel an awful lot better for it in very very many ways.

A brief p.s. There’s lots more here that I want to explore but by those curious and lovely co-incidences the Internet often throws up over the last two days I came across two posts that tie to these themes.  Steve Wheelers on Curiosity making us who we are is very good on education. And Chris Bailey summary of a Year of Productivity experiments makes a very similar point on Energy.

Header image is Apples by  José Pestana on Flickr. Shared via a Creative Commons License.

Data education politics

Dept of Education and Primary Online Database

What is the Department of Education up to with the Primary Online Database.

Simon McGarr has a hypothesis

News and Events strategy Uncategorized

The Emperor’s New Facts

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.”  Artemus Ward

We’re focussed on helping people improve their businesses in Near Future.  And we think a lot about how we might do that. A part of that involves improved thinking, and asking awkward questions.  I’ve found over time that most ideas are logically constructed and the best way to challenge ideas are to challenge the assumptions, the basis on which they’re built.  If the assumptions are wrong everything else falls apart.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert L Sutton wrote a wonderful book on evidence based management a few years ago called “Hard Fact, Dangerous Half Truths & Total Nonsense” which poked holes in many of the modern Shibboleths of management.

One of the myths that Sutton and Pfeffer explored in their books was on the nature of Financial Incentives. The evidence shows that incentives sometimes demotivate, sometimes motivate the wrong behaviour and often attract the wrong sort of talent. Even in the best of circumstance are damn hard to get right. Even a company as clever as Microsoft has managed to design disastrous incentive systems that it has now abandoned.

We are planning a breakfast event in a few weeks in. It will be on the theme of what we know that isn’t true.  It is designed to break open a few management myths, the Emperors New Facts. The event will be invite only and we have a few open slots, email dermot if you’d like to be included in this or future events that we might run.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your ideas of things that are generally assumed but are wrong.