Resource Highlight: USAFacts.org

We’ve posted before about sources of U.S. government data, but there’s a new kid on the block: USAFacts, the brainchild of Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer. The new site takes publicly available data and makes it easier to query.

Endgadget’s review is mostly glowing: “Oh, and perhaps the most important thing: it’s just beautiful, thanks to help from Seattle-based design firm Artefact. True accessibility requires elegance and simplicity, and USAFacts has it.”

Apparently Ballmer found the existing plethora of resources frustrating according to Recode: “There’s no — at least, I couldn’t find an — integrated source of data, because to me integrated is important. If everything is integrated, everything has to add to 100 percent, no numbers can be taken out of context.”  He wanted something like the 10K report that companies file with the SEC, which is a comprehensive summary report of a company’s performance through financial statements.

CNN says he’s already spent $10 million on researchers in Seattle and at the University of Pennsylvania.  Furthermore, Endgadget reports that he’s willing to spend “several million dollars a year” to keep the service up and running — an important consideration when many transparency initiatives wither after the initial burst of enthusiasm and funding.

But TechDirt notes that the site is not without problems:

“The problem with Ballmer’s site is that it’s not properly open. There isn’t (enough) linking back to source data; there aren’t ways to examine how conclusions are reached; you can’t, in most cases, download their data…In many ways, it’s a black box – it tells you what they say the numbers say, but if you want to be certain, you don’t have any way to query the data properly…It’s a useful start, but it’s honestly hard to see it as $10m worth of a start. Three things that would improve it at once: 1) link back to the source material for each dataset; 2) show the working (and any conflicts in the data; 3) make the datasets downloadable in something other than PDF.

We recommend the site as a way of getting your students’ feet wet with data.  For deeper dives, there are more complete sources, where you can also see how the data were generated and download the datasets.


BulbgraphOnOffClicking on “Questions for Thought” in the overview brings up questions to focus poor readers on the section’s content.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

Resource Highlight: Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC)

The Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) is basically a social network of archives. It’s a bit like one-stop shopping: it exists to help historians and other researchers make connections among the people they are studying by mapping the ways in which they can be connected through archival materials.

From the blog post introducing SNAC to the public:

Let’s look at an example of Shirley Chisholm in SNAC. In just the National Archives Catalog, Chisholm has an authority record and is connected to just five descriptions. There are a pictures of her, an interview, and more… But the Archives is not the only repository to collect Chisholm’s work: 51 collections in SNAC either list her as the creator or have a referenced to her. For example, Chisholm’s letters are located in the New York Public Library.

Not only can you find a single person in multiple archives using SNAC, but you can also find records for people and organizations associated with them — so for Chisholm, some associated names are “major historical figures like Presidents Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson; Shirley Bernard, a professor and an active member of the National Organization of Women; and Constance Baker Motley, an important African American judge and social reformer.” (The featured image is of the network of names associated with Chisholm’s, which also shows if the names were connected apart from their connection through Chisholm.)

This makes SNAC a tremendous tool not only for doing historical research, but for situating research in context.

 

#EdTech Posts of Interest

Two very interesting recent posts from blog Seattle Education about edtech — where it came from, and where it’s going.

computer motherboard

You cannot fully understand what is happening with Future Ready school redesign, 1:1 device programs, embedded assessments, gamification, classroom management apps, and the push for students in neighborhood schools to supplement instruction with online courses until you grasp the role the federal government and the Department of Defense more specifically have played in bringing us to where we are today.

— Source: “How exactly did the Department of Defense end up in my child’s classroom?” by Seattle Education

Focus group results have been refined into sophisticated campaigns designed to convince us that digital education for children is superior to face-to-face instruction with a certified teacher. The goal? Put technology front and center in 21st century school redesign, and push human beings to the sidelines…If it’s innovative, it must be good. Personalization? Bring it on! And for students in underfunded schools with leaky roofs and tainted water, the arrival of technology brings a glimmer of hope that someone actually cares. But are we bridging a digital divide? Or are we setting our schools up for digital dehumanization down the road?

— Source: “Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight” by Seattle Education

As a very small social studies publisher, we see these developments from both ends: the DoD/DARPA connection is dominated by large companies and foundations with a particular guiding educational philosophy — one we don’t share.  We believe that learning requires true interactivity, and that true interactivity requires software that can respond to different interests.  Our design makes it possible for students and teachers to proceed as they see fit through our wealth of content, whether they want to get a basic grasp of a subject or explore it in depth.  Our software uses your web browser, which makes it as accessible as possible, to as wide a range of students as possible.

And while we provide in-program assessments at several levels, as well as reporting for teachers — although quite rudimentary compared to the meta data and para data described in the post! — we do not envision our software as a teacher replacement.  Everything we design rests on the assumption that a human teacher is guiding the learning process, and will be there to explain, assist, and evaluate.

It is possible to use digital educational tools that don’t demand souls as payment!

What’s at Stake: Government-Supported Humanities

Government support for scientific research is going to be the subject of another march on Washington, D.C. very soon. And support for both basic and applied scientific research is clearly important: it’s led to important discoveries that impact our health and well-being on a daily basis.  Basic research provides the building blocks for applied research:

Major innovation is rarely possible without prior generation of new knowledge founded on basic research. Strong scientific disciplines and strong collaboration between them are necessary both for the generation of new knowledge and its application. Retard basic research and inevitably innovation and application will be stifled.

For example, studying systems biology has led to a new understanding about how medications can interact in the body, and how they’ll interact with the food we eat. Practical outcome: if you’re taking iron supplements, taking a stomach medication like Pepcid will reduce the amount of iron that your body will actually absorb, and eating foods high in vitamin C will increase the amount.

But the federal government doesn’t only fund science!  It also funds the humanities: history, art, philosophy, literature, and languages — all the aspects of human cultural constructs.  The National Endowment for the Humanities funds a tremendous amount of work by local governments, universities, public libraries, and independent scholars engaged in the production, dissemination, and preservation of culture.

A small sample from the list of NEH grant recipients in New York’s 1st congressional district (the east end of Long Island) in the past ten years can illustrate this more clearly:

  • a public library needing to purchase storage furniture to rehouse and preserve collections of books, maps, photographs, diaries, and whaling logs used in research and exhibitions on the history and culture of Sag Harbor, New York, from the eighteenth century to the present.
  • a musicologist requesting assistance in preparation for publication of volumes 4, 8, 13, 19, and 21 of the complete online digital edition of the secular music of Luca Marenzio.
  • a town needing training in disaster preparedness to preserve the town’s historical records from 1640 on, comprising over 6,500 cubic feet of manuscripts, maps, bound volumes, photographs, newspapers, and other published and unpublished materials.
  • support for four Iraqi professional archaeologists to attend an intensive training program in Remote Sensing and GIS and to survey archaeological sites in the key Nippur, Uruk and Eridu survey areas for evidence of site damage from looting and development, recording new sites, ancient landscape features and intra-site details.
  • a professor writing a book on how people with cognitive disabilities have been and should be dealt with in philosophy both with respect to what is due them and with respect to what is conducive to their good.

NEH funding made a re-creation of John Donne’s “Gunpowder Speech” possible, a project that made a virtual reality St. Paul’s Cathedral: the featured image is St. Paul’s Churchyard, looking east, from the west; from the Visual Model constructed by Joshua Stephens and rendered by Jordan Gray.  Important because the five hundred-year old cathedral burned down in London’s Great Fire of 1666.  The project allows us to experience what it was like for someone in 1622 (minus the smells, of course) — very different from the present-day cathedral!  And if you’re thinking “that’s nice, but I don’t see the connection to real life” think about how useful this technique would be for solving crimes, or diagnosing illness long distance, and so on!

Does an organization in your community have a project that needs funding? Involving your students in the grant application process could be a real learning experience, demonstrating the importance of federal government funding for the humanities.


BulbgraphOnOffUse social media such as Instagram to document student’s finished projects.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

Finding Patterns in Political Money

If your U.S. Government class is up to Chapter 7: Campaigns and Voting, you’re probably discussing the ins and outs of campaign finance.  Want to take the discussion even further?  Try exploring some of the data sets annotated below.

The Anomaly Tracker from OpenSecrets tracks six kinds of money-in-politics data:

  1. Lawmakers sponsoring legislation that was lobbied by only one company or other organization whose employees or PAC also donated to the sponsoring lawmakers.
  2. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donors as their next highest donors.
  3. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donor industries as their next highest donor industries.
  4. Lawmakers receiving more than 50 percent of their itemized contributions from out of state.
  5. More than 50 percent of a committee or candidate’s spending is paid to a single vendor.
  6. PACs giving at least $7,500 to a candidate’s Leadership PAC but nothing to the candidate’s committee.

Of course, the existence of an anomaly is not by itself evidence of shenanigans!  But since patterns can be studied for systemic meaning, anomalies in those patterns should be investigated and explained.

There are other databases to explore that might shed light on political money.  One is the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME) at Stanford University which “contains over 100 million political contributions made by individuals and organizations to local, state, and federal elections spanning a period from 1979 to 2012. A corresponding database of candidates and committees provides additional information on state and federal elections.”

The other is the Money, Politics and Transparency database, which scores countries on five issues:

  1. Direct and Indirect Public Funding during Campaigns
  2. Restrictions on Contribution and Expenditure
  3. Reporting Requirements and Public Disclosure
  4. Third-Party Actors
  5. Monitoring and Enforcement
MPT scorecard for Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, and Turkey
Each country has two scores: in law (which measures the strength of its existing regulations), and in practice (which measures how well the laws are enforced). The scores are then averaged and weighted to give a composite score.

Comparisons to other systems can help people figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of keeping politics free from the corruption of money.  Both databases are funded in part by the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make governments open, transparent, and accountable.

[The featured image is a screen grab of Graph: Political Party Finances from WorldView Software’s U.S. Government.]


BulbgraphOnOffUse social media such as a Twitter hashtag to create a running stream of questions during lectures, then go back and discuss.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

 

Top Ten Posts in 2016

These were the posts on WorldView Software’s blog that were most popular over the past year:

  1. Home page / Archives – See the latest post here
  2. American Ancestry in Maps – there are LOTS of people with German ancestry
  3. Transgender People in History – definitions, historical examples, and more
  4. The Museum of Lost Objects – documenting antiquities lost to war
  5. How Do Polls Work? – when is a poll a valid measure of public opinion?
  6. Economic Indicators – non-traditional indicators of economic well-being (or not)
  7. Phases of the Moon – why we keep track of the moon
  8. Could You Come up with $1,000 for an Emergency? – a personal financial literacy issue
  9. Secular Homeschoolers – why WorldView’s materials are a good fit
  10. Using Pokémon Go to Teach Local History – how to work the fad into your lesson planning

Have a happy new year, and thanks for reading!


BulbgraphOnOffAlmost any current browser can be used with WorldView Software, making it accessible from a wide range of devices.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

Tuesday #EdTech Round-up

To give everyone a break from election-related news, here are some interesting #edtech things from around the web:

  • Using virtual reality to revisit the scene of Nagasaki post-atomic bomb: with the help of archival photos, Nagasaki University created a 3D model of the city that allows schoolchildren to explore a radius of about 500 yards around the bomb’s epicenter;
  • a lesson plan for coding an interactive map using Scratch from Ryan Smith on Brian Aspinall’s site (this is specifically for a map of Canada, but is customizable);
  • reviews of social studies apps you can use for enrichment from Common Sense;
  • an optimistic article from C|Net on how good online-only high schools can be when everything is working as intended;
  • and on that note, for people implementing online studies, a list of thoughtful questions from the blog Seattle Education that anyone involved with schools should be asking about privacy, the value and goals of data-driven pedagogy, and technology-mediated education in general.

Back to the election. Remember to vote!

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