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Planning for disaster: forecasting the impact of floods in South Asia's river basins

Satya Priya's picture
hey, what's going on in there?
hey, what's going on in there?
Education is a ‘black box’ -- or so a prevailing view among many education policymakers and researchers goes.

For all of the recent explosion in data related to learning -- as a result of standardized tests, etc. -- remarkably little is known at scale about what exactly happens in classrooms around the world, and outside of them, when it comes to learning, and what the impact of this has.

This isn't to say that we know nothing, of course:

The World Bank (to cite an example from within my own institution) has been using standardized classroom observation techniques to help document what is happening in many classrooms around the world (see, for example, reports based on modified Stallings Method classroom observations across Latin America which seek to identify how much time is actually spent on instruction during school hours; in many cases, the resulting data generated are rather appalling).

Common sense holds various tenets dear when it comes to education, and to learning; many educators profess to know intuitively what works, based on their individual (and hard won) experience, even in the absence of rigorously gathered, statistically significant 'hard' data; the impact of various socioeconomic factors is increasingly acknowledged (even if many policymakers remain impervious to them); and cognitive neuroscience is providing many interesting insights.

But in many important ways, education policymaking and processes of teaching and learning are constrained by the fact that we don't have sufficient, useful, actionable data about what is actually happening with learners at a large scale across an education system -- and what impact this might have. Without data, as Andreas Schleicher likes to say, you are just another person with an opinion. (Of course, with data you might be a person with an ill-considered or poorly argued opinion, but that’s another issue.)
side observation: Echoing many teachers (but, in contrast to teaching professionals, usually with little or no formal teaching experience themselves), I find that many parents and politicians also profess to know intuitively ‘what works’ when it comes to teaching. When it comes to education, most everyone is an ‘expert’, because, well, after all, everyone was at one time a student. While not seeking to denigrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or downplay the value of common sense, I do find it interesting that many leaders profess to have ready prescriptions at hand for what ‘ails education’ in ways that differ markedly from the ways in which they approach making decisions when it comes to healthcare policy, for example, or finance – even though they themselves have also been patients and make spending decisions in their daily lives.

One of the great attractions of educational technologies for many people is their potential to help open up and peer inside this so-called black box. For example:
  • When teachers talk in front of a class, there are only imperfect records of what transpired (teacher and student notes, memories of participants, what's left on the blackboard -- until that's erased). When lectures are recorded, on the other hand, there is a data trail that can be examined and potentially mined for related insights.
  • When students are asked to read in their paper textbook, there is no record of whether the book was actually opened, let along whether or not to the correct page, how long a page was viewed, etc. Not so when using e-readers or reading on the web.
  • Facts, figures and questions scribbled on the blackboard disappear once the class bell rings; when this information is entered into, say,  Blackboard TM (or any other digital learning management system, for that matter), they can potentially live on forever. 
And because these data are, at their essence, just a collection of ones and zeroes, it is easy to share them quickly and widely using the various connected technology devices we increasingly have at our disposal.
A few years ago I worked on a large project where a government was planning to introduce lots of new technologies into classrooms across its education system. Policymakers were not primarily seeking to do this in order to ‘transform teaching and learning’ (although of course the project was marketed this way), but rather so that they could better understand what was actually happening in classrooms. If students were scoring poorly on their national end-of-year assessments, policymakers were wondering: Is this because the quality of instruction was insufficient? Because the learning materials used were inadequate? Or might it be because the teachers never got to that part of the syllabus, and so students were being assessed on things they hadn’t been taught? If technology use was mandated, at least they might get some sense about what material was being covered in schools – and what wasn’t. Or so the thinking went ....

Yes, such digital trails are admittedly incomplete, and can obscure as much as they illuminate, especially if the limitations of such data are poorly understood and data are investigated and analyzed incompletely, poorly, or with bias (or malicious intent). They also carry with them all sorts of very important and thorny considerations related to privacy, security, intellectual property and many other issues.

That said, used well, the addition of additional data points holds out the tantalizing promise of potentially new and/or deeper insights than has been currently possible within 'analogue' classrooms.

But there is another 'black box of education' worth considering.

In many countries, there have been serious and expansive efforts underway to compel governments make available more ‘open data’ about what is happening in their societies, and to utilize more ‘open educational resources’ for learning – including in schools. Many international donor and aid agencies support related efforts in key ways. The World Bank is a big promoter of many of these so-called ‘open data’ initiatives, for example. UNESCO has long been a big proponent of ‘open education resources’ (OERs). To some degree, pretty much all international donor agencies are involved in such activities in some way.

There is no doubt that increased ‘openness’ of various sorts can help make many processes and decisions in the education sector more transparent, as well as have other benefits (by allowing the re-use and ‘re-mixing’ of OERs, teachers and students can themselves help create new teaching and learning materials; civil society groups and private firms can utilize open data to help build new products and services; etc.).

That said:
  • What happens when governments promote the use of open education data and open education resources but, at the same time, refuse to make openly available the algorithms (formulas) that are utilized to draw insights from, and make key decisions based on, these open data and resources?
  • Are we in danger of opening up one black box, only to place another, more inscrutable back box inside of it?

A simple model to assess the economic impacts of large projects

 Egyptian Studio l world Bank

هذا العام، حصلت على الفرصة الرائعة لمنحة تدريب صيفية بمقر البنك الدولي بواشنطن، وتناولت بالبحث المستويات المختلفة للاستثمارات التي قدمتها البلدان في منطقة الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا في مجال تنمية الطفولة المبكرة. ونتيجة لذلك، اكتسبت رؤى متبصرة بشأن قضايا تنموية ما كنت لأدركها من أي طريق آخر، ولم تكن لديّ أيّة فكرة عن كيفية تحسينها.

The Niger River Delta - a strategic asset in Africa’s Sahel region

Paula Caballero's picture

Nous avons le plaisir de dévoiler les 12 projets retenus pour soutenir l’amélioration de la production, la gestion et l’utilisation des données sur le développement. Portés par des équipes internationales aux profils variés, ces projets ont été conçus pour aider des pays à revenu faible et intermédiaire de la tranche inférieure en Afrique subsaharienne, en Asie de l’Est, en Amérique latine et en Asie du Sud.

Après le succès du premier cycle d’appel à projets lancé en 2016 (a), nous avons annoncé en août 2017 la création d’un nouveau fonds, doté de 2,5 millions de dollars, pour investir dans « l’innovation et les données collaboratives au service du développement durable ». Avec le Partenariat mondial pour des données sur le développement durable (GPSDD), le Groupe de gestion des données sur le développement de la Banque mondiale a sollicité des propositions pour améliorer la production, la gestion et l’utilisation des données, en se concentrant sur deux thèmes : « ne laisser personne sur le côté » et l’environnement. Pour s’assurer que les investissements soutiennent bien des solutions concrètes aux problèmes des populations et adaptées au contexte et aux attentes des bénéficiaires, chaque équipe devait intégrer un représentant des usagers (issu en général d’un organisme public). La sélection des projets reposait aussi sur leur capacité à produire des enseignements et des connaissances pouvant être partagés, adaptés et réutilisés.
De la prévision des mouvements des personnes déplacées en Somalie à une évaluation plus rapide des dégâts consécutifs aux catastrophes au Népal en passant par la lutte contre une espèce de chenille invasive au Malawi ou encore l’optimisation des services publics pour les aînés au Kenya et en Inde grâce à la cartographie, les 12 projets sélectionnés ont tous un point commun : ils illustrent la manière dont des partenariats, des méthodes et des sources d’information d’un genre nouveau peuvent être intégrés afin d’exploiter pleinement les données au service du développement.

Cette initiative est soutenue par le Fonds fiduciaire pour le renforcement des capacités statistiques (TFSCB) de la Banque mondiale et financée par le département du Développement international du Royaume-Uni (DfID), ainsi que par la République de Corée et le ministère irlandais des Affaires étrangères et du Commerce.

Palmarès 2018 du Fonds pour l’innovation

Keeping the Lights on in Africa, Fulfilling a Pledge

Makhtar Diop's picture
How close to the edge?
   Photo ©

In September, a diverse group of scientists—among them the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen—presented in the journal Nature a new framework to analyze sustainable development at a global scale. This framework recognizes that humans have now become the main driver of global environmental change, and that our impact on the planet is growing stronger.

We are affecting every one of the major natural processes which are important for our own welfare, wrecking the ability of earth systems to regulate themselves, and buffer disturbances. In fact, our actions may be shifting earth processes to a completely new state that is a far cry from the extraordinarily stable conditions (in the entire history of planet earth) that allowed the development of human civilization since 10,000 BC. In the words of Paul Crutzen and colleagues, we have entered a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”.

Our pressure on the planet appears more and more troubling as our understanding of earth processes improves. There is increasing evidence that many earth systems and biophysical phenomena do not change in a linear fashion, but rather experience abrupt changes when thresholds are crossed.

Indonesia: Here be (Komodo) dragons

Tony Whitten's picture

I thought that seeing zoo animals would have prepared me for seeing these unfettered beasts at close quarters, but I was completely wrong. They are HUGE.

I’d seen the video, read the book, heard the David Attenborough podcast, written the box, gone to the zoos, got the T-shirt. So I thought I knew Komodo Dragons pretty well, even if I hadn’t seen them in the wild.  I’d seen many other types of monitor lizards in forests and along rivers all over Asia and Australia, and didn’t think that seeing a larger one would be an especially great way to use up a precious day of vacation.

So when we landed in Flores in the dry Lesser Sunda islands of southern Indonesia, we were in two minds whether to bother to go to Komodo National Park which for nearly 20 years has been a World Heritage Site. There are certainly other things to do in western Flores such as trekking the Mbeliling forests, visiting the remarkable highland village of Waerebo, snorkelling/diving, and vegging out in some interesting hotels such as the EcoLodge.  Eventually, on the grounds that it would be faintly ridiculous to be so close to such a famous site and not to take a day to go, we rented a boat for the two-hour trip to the park’s Tourist Zone. (Mind you, I believe I’m one of the very few people ever to have gone to Agra and not seen the Taj Mahal.)

Laos: Flooding starts, testing stops for NT2 hydropower project

William Rex's picture
Homs, Syria - ART Production |

Everyone agrees that conflicts impose huge costs on economies, including massive destruction of infrastructure and housing, disruption of trade, transport and production, not to mention the loss of lives and widespread human suffering. Yet quantitative estimates of these costs are hard to come by.     

Effects of climate change put Mongolian herders at risk, new research shows

Tony Whitten's picture
Pérdida y desperdicio global de alimentos por región  a. Porcentaje de pérdida total

Se ha hablado mucho sobre los disturbios por la falta de alimentos ocurridos en 2007 luego de las alzas en los precios mundiales de los alimentos. El interés generado por estos hechos está completamente justificado dado que hubo  muertos y lesionados. Además, es muy probable que en el futuro cercano ocurran más sucesos de esta naturaleza, si los precios de los alimentos siguen siendo tan elevados e inestables en el mundo. No se puede esperar que estos desórdenes dejen de pasar cuando se vive en un entorno en que las condiciones meteorológicas son cada vez más impredecibles, en que los Gobiernos para enfrentar las dificultades y presiones  toman fácilmente medidas de políticas comerciales inducidas por el pánico y en que continúan sucediendo desastres humanitarios relacionados con los alimentos.

En la actualidad, las crisis causadas por los precios de los alimentos han provocado una y otra vez una gran inestabilidad sociopolítica de carácter espontáneo, por lo general en las ciudades. Sin embargo, no todos los episodios violentos han surgido repentinamente y se sabe, por ejemplo, que la creciente competencia a largo plazo por la tierra y el agua también genera conflictos. Cuando se suman la pobreza y las disparidades generalizadas, las reivindicaciones básicas y la falta de redes de protección social adecuadas, el resultado es una combinación donde la inseguridad alimentaria y el conflicto estarán estrechamente relacionados. Ciertamente, la lista de estos tipos de eventos violentos es muy extensa y la última edición de mayo de Alerta sobre precios de los alimentos muestra ejemplos ocurridos en Argentina, Camerún, Pakistán, Somalia, Sudán y Túnez.

Mongolia: Country of climatic extremes vulnerable to impacts of climate change

Tony Whitten's picture
Homs, Syria - ART Production |

Chacun sait qu’un conflit grève lourdement l’économie d’un pays : destruction massive des infrastructures et des logements, perturbation des échanges commerciaux, des transports et de la production, sans parler des victimes et d’une souffrance généralisée. Pourtant, les estimations quantitatives des coûts sur l’économie sont rares.

Melting glaciers redistribute Asia's water

David Dollar's picture

"The glacier at Karo-la pass covered the whole rock face when our Tibetan guide began leading tours in 1996."
I spent the October holiday in China traveling across the Tibetan plateau to Qomolangma (Mount Everest) base camp. One striking impression was how much water there is there. Most of the great rivers of Asia originate on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau: Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Irrawady, and Yarhung Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh). Half the world’s population gets its water from these rivers running off the plateau. The rivers are fed by the gradual melting of the huge glaciers that cover the Himalayan peaks, as well as the melting of the annual snowpack and seasonal rain. (The name of the Himalayan peak, Annapurna, in Nepal means “full of food,” reflecting the fact that the gradual melting of snowpack and glaciers each spring and summer waters the rice crop.)

The melting of the glaciers has accelerated dramatically in recent years. This is one of the most profound effects of global warming. The glaciers have shrunk 20% over the past 50 years, with much of that in the past decade. Our Tibetan guide took us to a number of different glaciers and showed us how they had receded since he starting taking tours around in 1996. At Karo-la pass we stood on hard, dry ground that had been covered by the glacier just 12 years ago. Climate scientists project that the glaciers will be 80% gone by 2035.

Nam Theun 2 impoundment begins - Also, checking progress in the new villages

William Rex's picture

There are two types of people in the world. Those with whom mosquitoes fall passionately in love, and those to whom mosquitoes turn only as a last resort. I unfortunately am one of the former, and I was awoken a little before sunrise by a swarm of well-informed mosquitoes in Lak Sao, behaving a little like my 3-year old when he thinks he can persuade me to give him chocolate milk for breakfast.

(But first, take a look at the new villages for the local residents. My colleague Nanda does the talking):