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College Made Easier with Open Data – Plus Your Weekend Reads!

Going to college is an exciting, terrifying and downright confusing time for students and parents alike. Choosing the right college is a difficult choice. Paying for that college is tricky and figuring out student aid is almost impossible. That is why the White House Innovation fellows were tasked with opening up Education Department data to help private companies develop tools and apps to help.

James Sanders is on the Presidential Innovation Fellow team. Sanders shared the progress of the open data initiatives during an AFFIRM Innovation Panel.

Path to Washington:

“Before coming to Washington, I worked for the second largest search engine in the world, Youtube. I was in the education space and we had a problem. We were blocked on 92% of the schools in the country. You can probably understand why. So we had to solve that problem, because within Youtube there is also a vast treasure trove of educational material. There is high quality content that belongs in the hands of a teachers, students and schools. We had to figure out how to make it open and clean it up and get our users to start interacting with it,” said Sanders.

Sanders said it took three different approaches to make it happen:

  1. Educating the public about the resources on Youtube. It was going out and talking to the big school districts and talking to the various players in the space in social media.
  2. Redesigning the site. We needed to make it safe for teachers and students to go on Youtube. So we created Youtube for teachers and Youtube for students.
  3. Re-structuring the layout. We had to make it easy to come in and discover the content right away.

“The government had a similar problem. They had all of this data that nobody was using. The data was closed, inaccessible and it wasn’t able to get into the hands of the people that needed it. We approached the government problem in a similar way we approached the problem with Youtube,” said Sanders.

Data in the hands of developers

In working with the Department of Education we went out and we started to figure out what do developers need in order to make these tools and products. One of them is this database that we call iPass, which has information on all of the colleges in America. It says how successful they are in terms of graduating students. How much they cost for students to go to. How much average student loan debt you will have upon graduating. In partnership with GSA they redesigned data.gov to make it really accessible for entrepreneurs to get access to the data, but that wasn’t enough. We needed to actually go out and meet with the entrepreneurs that we want to be leveraging these data sets,” said Sanders.

Sell the message

“We went out to Cambridge, gathered all the entrepreneurs that we could from the northeast coridorr and we socialized them to the data sets that were available. Hey check this out. Look at what we can offer you. This is how you use it. This is how we think the data could be used, but we want to hear from you. Then we flew out to Palo Alto, because you can’t do anything with technology without going to Silicon Valley, and did the exact same thing. We invited whoever would listen to start brainstorming. This was in December. The response was overwhelming,” said Sanders.


“Then we challenged them, build something. You create a tool or something that serves the President’s agenda in terms of making college more valuable, affordable or easily accessible and we will showcase it. We put out the call to challenge entrepreneurs at big companies or small companies. They answered. We sent invitations to party to celebrate the success. I called Lena and asked her what is the biggest and best buiding we should use to host the event. She said the Ronald Regan building, I said great. It holds about 540 seats. We had over 630 people show up to a venue that holds 550. So people were streaming out into the hallways. People wanted to hear about what we have to offer to help students apply for financial aid more easily,” said Sanders.

Reworking FASFA

“We are excited to announce as part of this API strategy that for the first time the Education Department is asking for information from the private sector on how we could re-design or open up the FASFA. The FASFA is this application that all students in America have to fill out if they want financial aid. In order to fill it out, you have to go to financialaid.gov. We no longer as Americans have to go to IRS.gov to fill out our taxes. There are web apps like H&R Block. These experiences make it really easy for us to do our taxes. Well, we don’t have that same service for students. We force them to go to this website. You have to print out all of this stuff. It is a nightmare. Right now only about 50% of the students in our country complete that process. That’s not enough. We are not going to be the world’s graduation leader if we don’t get them the aid that they need,” said Sanders.

Weekend reads

We know weekend time is precious, so we try to pull some stories throughout the week that are worth your time… and may just plant a seed for new ideas…

  • The New Republic: The Post Office Should Just Become a Bank: “The Inspector General, who conducted the study with the help of a team of experts in international postal banking as well as a former executive from Merrill Lynch, correctly frames the proposal not as a challenge to mega-banks, but as a way to deliver needed amenities to the nearly 68 million Americans–over one-quarter of U.S. households–who have limited or no access to financial services. Instead of banks, these mostly low-income individuals use check-cashing stores, pawnshops, payday lenders, and other unscrupulous financial services providers who gouged their customers to the tune of $89 billion in interest and fees in 2012, according to the IG report. Post offices could deliver the same services at a 90 percent discount.”
  • Slate: The stunning success of ‘fail better: Everyone in Silicon Valley loves to tell a good failure story. Let’s rephrase that. These stories are not really failure stories, as they usually end with Google coming to rescue the flailing protagonist with the gift of billions. The “failure” part is in the long lead-in, with the hardy band of engineering brothers (there are never any sisters in this story) suffering initial setbacks dealt by the suits and perhaps a fickle public unappreciative of the world-changing technology. Given this understanding of failure, “Fail Better,” has become a Valley tagline, writes Slate’s Mark O’Connell. “With its TEDishly counterintuitive feel,” the line makes sense in the same way that failing (before making billions) makes sense. But the truth is that few people know its true origin, let alone the bleak, almost nihilistic text from which the phrase has been plucked. “Fail better” comes from “Worstward Ho” written by existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett, a literary figure whose world view is about as far from sunny Sand Hill Road as one can get. Here’s part of the paragraph after that “Fail again” mention: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all” Now that’s failure!
  • And Simon Sinek: Good Leaders Eat Last

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