Data Collection, Political Candidate Edition

3 min read

Right now, there is a very good possibility that at least some of the candidates for the 2056 presidential election are in elementary or middle school.

To meet federal accountability requirements, their schools collect detailed information about their behavior and performance. This information - tied to a unique identifier - gets stored in a state database that records detailed information about learners. All states collect this information for K12 education; 41 track information from preK through college.

Many of these state level datastores are managed, supported, and accessed by external vendors like - for example - Pearson, eScholar, and Infinite Campus.

If this candidate goes to a school that uses Powerschool, then their personal information is shared with Pearson. If this candidate goes to a school that uses Google Apps, then their information gets shared with Google. If this candidate goes to a school that uses Bing for Schools, then their information is shared with Microsoft. If this candidate goes to a school with an iPad program, then their information gets shared with Apple, and all of the vendors of the apps purchased by the school through Apple's closed app ecosystem. If the candidate goes to a school that use Clever to unify platforms, aggregate information from multiple sources flows through the infrastructure of another vendor.

All of these vendors manage information - they have to, in order to deliver the services they offer. But many of these vendors have terms of service that allow them to share information with affiliates and partners, thus expanding the flow of data to even more locations.

As of this writing, few of these data solutions support any streamlined student or parent review. Few, if any, support student input on the data points that people claim make up a "complete" picture of student learning.

It's hard to imagine a scenario where our future presidential candidates won't have their learning patterns stored with at least 10 different vendors.

As we saw with the ConnectEDU bankruptcy, all it takes is a corporate declaration to convert personal details into an asset to be sold. 

What if Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama went to school in a time where the process of their learning left a long, permanent data trail? What would their data trails be worth? What would be the worth of these data trails to other politicians? Journalists? Business leaders? Other governments? Future datastore hacks have the potential to make NewsCorps' phone hacking scandal look quaint.

Now, in 2014, it's safe to say that we don't fully understand the potential ramifications of our data collection and use. And that's not necessarily bad - new technologies bring us to unpredictable places. That's normal. But, given the amount of data collected about students, it's unthinkable that we continue to exclude students and parents from commenting on and controlling their stories, as recorded through their data.