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Wintermester course explores big data in the public sphere; former students say they now better understand privacy issues and can navigate data more effectively

Big Data Graphic courtesy of Jesse Steele

Ever wonder what big data really means? No special information technology, computer science, or statistical experience is required to delve into this topic in a Wintermester course offered by the School of Public and International Affairs in the National Capital Region for the second consecutive year.

Realizing the Promise of Big Data in the Public Sphere (PAPA 5984) will explore the meaning of big data, how best to use it, and whether it is a force for good or the beginning of the robot revolution. Students look at why people are worried about losing their privacy to big data. Is this a legitimate concern? If so, how government can safeguard individual privacy and civil liberties while harnessing the insights that big data provide?

Justin Abold-LaBreche, a professor of practice at the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP) in Old Town Alexandria, will teach the course during the Winter Session, Dec 28, 2015 through Jan 16, 2016. It is open to both undergraduate seniors and graduate students in all majors.

"Facing significant budget pressures and other threats such as cyber-attack, today's public administrators face greater pressure to innovate and meet new citizen demands for service - - such as digital accounts or mobile apps,” said Abold-LaBreche.“By unlocking knowledge within an agency's databases and supporting an agile test-and-learn approach, big data can accelerate innovation while managing the risk of trying something new."

The test-and-learn approach is used by federal, state, and local governments to improve the ways they serve their citizens, Abold-LeBreche explained.

Ian Roessle from Van Nuys, California, a Ph.D. student in computer engineering, decided to take the course the first year it was offered "to see how big data could drive informed public policy and to explore personal security implications that need protecting as a result of aggregating large volumes of data."

He said the course provided him with an opportunity for both.

Roessle said he particularly liked the wide variety of papers the students read and analyzed and noted that the technique of randomized control trials was not only interesting but potentially useful for other engineering efforts.

Another big plus of the course for Roessle: “It strengthened my writing skills,” he said.

The Wintermester big data course includes a combination of audio/video podcasts, virtual seminars, online reading and discussions, and applied projects. The course culminates with a face-to-face three-day (Jan. 7-9) summit in Washington, D.C., where students have a chance to learn from leading experts about big data information technology, how to create a government organization that can harness big data; how to design test-and-learn experiments; and how to protect privacy.

TiArre Stromer from Montclair, Virginia, a graduate student in the Masters of Public Administration program, who, like Roessle, took the course in 2014-2015 Winter Session, said that she “really enjoyed the multi-faceted approach to our class meetings. The webinar format, face-to-face, and forums were great ways to keep everyone engaged, as well as the various public practitioners who brought a slice of reality to the challenges we studied in journal articles and literature about big data.”

What she gained has been relevant in current coursework, Stromer said, helping her navigate the data available for various projects and understanding the limitations of the data, as well as the challenges of finding the most valuable data when there is so much data available.

“I am able to frame questions differently in order to get to the useful data in an environment that can distract you from your focus,” she said.

Abold-LaBreche is a career member of the Senior Executive Service, currently serving as acting director, Office of Compliance Analytics, Internal Revenue Service, where he leads data analytics and test-and-learn initiatives designed to improve the nation’s tax administration. He holds a DPhil (PhD) in law/criminology from Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Registration for Realizing the Promise of Big Data in the Public Sphere (PAPA 5984). is now open and can be accessed from the Virginia Tech Winter Session website. Email Justin Abold-LaBreche for more information.

Posted October 28, 2015