Digital data never dies.

Are we teaching young people to use the data-rich environment in which they will live? Clever people who grasp the real meaning of ‘digital’ and the ability of computers to collect and manipulate data will use their skills to manipulate people. Are we preparing young people for this or is the world-changing impact of computer databases going unrecognised by the curriculum?

A database is just a tool for looking up information isn’t it? No – it’s a lot more than that because the existence of computer databases radically changes the relationship between human beings and data.

The question used to be “what data is available to help us answer the question”. With increasingly huge amounts of data now available and easily copied because it is digital data, the question is becoming much more “what data is going to be most relevant to getting the most insightful answer to the question”.

This might sound like a very philosophical argument but it is really a completely different way of thinking. And this involves not just databases themselves, but the computer-based tools used to acquire data, such as data-loggers or online surveys. It also involves the ability to generate new data by relating different sets of data that can be linked through a common field. I understand that a supermarket chain can predict very precisely what revenue a new store will produce by linking a database of population socio-economic data in geographical areas, with a database of local transport and their own database of their different stores and customer profiles.

These are also the issues behind identity theft. The question here is not whether criminals can obtain your personal data. The question to worry about is what the criminals can do with your perssonal data because they will have increasing amounts of it. What politicians fail to realise is that digital data never dies. Every time there is a leak of data, that data will continue to circulate in the criminal world. An identity thief may collect huge sets of personal data from many different sources and cross relate them. If they find say the same name and date of birth in several data-sets, there is a strong possibility that this is the same person. Whereas each data-set on its own may contain only a few pieces of personal information, by combining them they can build a very convincing knowledge of an individual. Only a short while ago I needed to change my address with my credit-card company, and the security questions they asked me must have been derived from cross-relating data, such as giving me a list of four surnames and asking me which had lived at the new address I was moving to (and other similarly unexpected questions to which they knew the answers). Identity thieves will surely in time catch up with these techniques and will manage to have similar databases to hand to ply their nasty trade.

Now the question for educators is where this aspect of ICT is covered in the curriculum. There used to be good work on databases in history but we don’t have time machines to go and gather new data not already recorded. So perhaps this kind of thinking ought to sit in geography? Would a geographer like to comment and let me know if it does? And I need to explore just how well the ICT curriculum covers this kind of different thinking. I hear from colleagues that the modelling parts of the curriculum tend not to be well taught.

Of course teachers and school leaders themselves are rather poor at using data in their work. They subjectively catch and use huge amounts of information about their pupils, but often miss correlating this with other data that could be available to them, such as national statistics or comparative data. But that’s a topic for another section.