Daley: Data demands drive our disruption

Have your say: Join the conversation on developing the university’s first-ever digital strategy by attending its first town-hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Nov. 19 in the McKellar Room, University Community Centre (UCC). Visit the Western Data website or contact Mark Daley, Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy.

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We’re at the dawn of a global disruption in higher education.

Arizona State University (ASU) has been lauded in some quarters for making significant changes to how they do business. But even ASU remains rooted in the same blueprint for the contemporary American research university that Johns Hopkins University created nearly five generations ago as a bold reaction to the demands of the industrializing society of the 19th century.


Where is our bold reaction to the information society of the 21st century?

Society looks to us to educate its citizens, and to act as a generator, and reservoir, of knowledge and culture. But society is outgrowing us faster than we are adapting.

As we stand at the precipice of major disruption, our role in our society is, paradoxically, more essential than ever. Demands on contemporary workers and citizens are profound and require thoughtful, and broad, enabling educational strategies.

The cadence of basic and applied research feeding our economic engines is faster with each passing year, too. At the same time, these technological advances present troubling new social challenges.

One need only look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal to see that corporations driven by shareholder value are not inclined to self-regulate, and governments do not yet have the policy expertise to regulate.

We do.

So, then, if our survival is essential, how do we survive?

We might learn from ongoing disruption in other sectors. Nowhere has the information revolution progressed more than in the tech industry, at the front of which are the ‘FANG’ companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google).

Let’s pick Netflix as an instructive example and ask a single question: What made Netflix different from Blockbuster Video?

There are, of course, many good answers to this question – from Netflix’s Grove-inspired management practices, to its radical approach to corporate governance – but the simplest, most accurate, answer is that Netflix turned their data into action.

Netflix employs a popular recommender system to suggest what you should binge-watch next. This feature was not, however, originally driven as an improvement to customer experience, but as an exercise in inventory management.

When Netflix was in the business of shipping physical media by mail, they found most subscribers wanted to borrow from a small set of expensive movies – new releases. How could they encourage customers to borrow less popular old stock instead?

The solution was to offer movies the customer would likely enjoy, based on what others with similar viewing habits had enjoyed. Viewed through a new lens, data originally meant for largely retrospective purposes became an operationally critical part of the Netflix business model and experience.

Our institution is overflowing with such datasets – and hidden opportunities within them.

In the most obvious of analogies with Netflix, what if Western undergraduate students, at course registration time, were offered a ‘recommended schedule?’ Beyond increased convenience, such a system could help promote diversity in courses they select (just as Netflix promoted diversity in which DVDs were borrowed).

But our students have more important concerns than convenient course selection.

Are we preparing them to work in an information society? Every student should leave Western with the data acumen they need to be successful 21st-century citizens.

For some, this will be a higher-level understanding of a data-driven world that empowers them to understand, as example, that reading their Facebook feed during an election campaign might influence their voting. For others, it will be a comprehensive understanding of a data scientist’s full toolset. Our society demands that we prepare data-literate citizens and we need to approach this mission with intent.

Does anyone believe that, a decade from now, there will be any scholarly disciplines with less data than they have now? With each passing day, we develop new technologies and techniques that enable us to gather even more data, faster.

Data volume is a monotonic increasing quantity in our world and our traditional means of analysis, handcrafted in a bygone era of small, intimate datasets, cannot cope with inhuman volumes of data.

Fortunately, the very computational technologies that enable us to gather these colossal datasets also empower us to analyze them. To remain competitive, and to produce the impact expected of us, our researchers and scholars need the acumen to use these new tools.

A focus on data is not a panacea; however, our institution’s ability to adapt to serve a 21st-century society will require enormous collective effort and will touch on every aspect of what we do.

Data is one of the foundation stones in building the 21st-century university.

The ability to turn our data into actionable insights, and to train our students to do the same, is a necessary tool for our survival – and for theirs.

Mark Daley is the Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy. Join him for a conversation on developing the university’s first-ever digital strategy by attending the first town-hall meeting at 10 a.m. Nov. 19 in McKellar Room, University Community Centre (UCC). Visit the Western Data website for details.