Data is out there!
Sunday 19 June 2011
The longer I teach mathematics, the more apsects of it I enjoy teaching. My preferences vary from group to group and course to course, but just at the moment, I think it is really exciting to teach statistics. It is well documented that students can respond particularly well to the rooting of ideas in concrete contexts and statistics are a fantatstic way to do just that. I should add that I don't subscribe to the view that ideas always have to be rooted in concrete contexts, but that is a whole other conversation.
So it has probably always been true that use of context has been very possible in the teaching of statistics, although it is remarkable how much fictional, semi real data is still used. This is particularly true of textbooks and exams, and whilst I believe that the nature of both of those things should change on a big scale, I can't be sure how long that will take. In the classroom however, we are free to move with the times and the use of real, current and intriguing data is more possible than ever. Technology allows the data to be easily shared and for large amounts of it to be analysed with relative ease. For example, the whole question of climate change can be be tackled in classrooms now. Just today, I picked up this 100 years of UK rainfall data from one of my favourite data sources, The Guardian Datablog. I grabbed the data really quickly and used Autograph to make a scattergraph as shown in the image below. What conclusions can I draw? The point of this blog is the ease with which data can be gathered and processed and because it is real data, it makes one keener to play with it some more to see if there is anything in the data that is not shown in the scattergraph.
Above all this though, what I find particularly exciting is the increasingly high profile that popular media is giving to data analysis. The following are just a few examples
The Netflix prize - This is a great example of a project that was put out there for anyone that wanted to enter!
Kaggle - This website is based on a similar idea - real statistics projects/competitions for anyone that can.
Information is Beautiful - David McCandless brings information to us in increasingly inventive and interesting ways with his infographics. In doing so he reminds us how our understanding of the world around us depends in no small part on our ability to understand statistics and their representations.
Visulaisation prize - This is just another link I picked up through twitter that is a competition to create an infographic with some data they haven't had time to look at at 'information is beautiful'. To help, here is a blog I found on Tools for making infographics.
Gapminder by Hans Rosling - As many readers will know, Hans Rosling has done a huge amount to help get data in to the public domain and given us tool to help understand it.
All this really helps to convince students of the relevance of what you are trying to teach them and the place of these skills and techniques in our world. I particularly like the quote from David McCandless in his TED talk that 'Data is the new soil' and the illusion that much of our future development may depend on our ability to use data to accurately understand the present! It is all very exciting, particularly for mathematics teachers.