In April 2016, a group of over 25 educators from some of the most innovative public schools in the country gathered in Brooklyn for the first Data Whiz Summit. This group crafted unique projects that aimed to solve common “pain points” that furthered innovation and led to better student outcomes. Many of these projects and pain points had a common origin: an inability to use the information that schools had already collected. As the educators and school leaders in the room discussed these issues and possible solutions, it became clear that being able to securely compare and analyze data schools already collected would help improve existing systems. These conversations helped create Project Unicorn.

 

Among the challenges discussed at Data Whiz was the reality that data is too often inaccessible and shared via non-secure methods. Recognizing that synergy, cost saving, and better academic outcomes could be realized, we outlined shared issues and priorities to create a set of principles and a preliminary rubric designed to spur smart demand in data management and interoperability. The principles reflect concerns and priorities shared by many districts and schools, including: data format, data-standard alignment, unique identifiers, human-readable vs. machine-readable files, continuous data vs. snapshots, data rights and access to data, data exchange options, method and frequency of transfer, privacy and protecting student data, sign-on, rostering and authorization levels, tiered specifications, and best practices. This group created a rubric across these categories to allow for the side-by-side comparison of technology tools, and to empower schools and districts with the language to demand from vendors secure, controlled interchange of data amongst tools.

 

Later that April, a group of educators, school staff, and data experts considered these principles and thought about how to accurately define data interoperability, procurement, data standards, and the relevance of data to teaching and learning. This group of grassroots leaders gathered to consider ways to drive action spurred by an alliance of concerned organizations and propelled by teachers, schools, and districts. This team discussed working together to distill this set of principles while leveraging existing initiatives of peer organizations and offering a common sense expression of what educators need from tools and vendors.

 

With support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, InnovateEDU, a Brooklyn based non-profit, has been leading the Project Unicorn effort. Project Unicorn is focused on improving the adoption of industry adopted data interoperability standards in the education technology space and empowering districts and states to be smart consumers in their procurement of technology.

 

Commencing in August 2016, Phase 1 of Project Unicorn focused on the development of a rubric/tiered screening system that established a floor for what was acceptable to districts and focused on a goal or ideal state (e.g. an API with endpoints aligned to an industry accepted data standard).  The hope in defining multiple tiers was to acknowledge that current state of the market - lack of interoperability - but also how to begin to move towards an implementable solution throughout alignment to data privacy and security principles as well as industry aligned standards. This rubric can now be used to rank and index education technology products to score product interoperability. Since its launch, 419 school districts and charter school networks have signed a pledge not to procure products below a certain tier within one year of signing the pledge.

 

InnovateEDU is now leading the second phase of Project Unicorn to continue this forward momentum and to turn the focus of this effort to edtech vendors on the supply side. Although the challenges of understanding a product’s data interoperability may be clear, the ability to influence the market and vendors to embrace a shared code of conduct is a critical missing ingredient.

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