Will the inBloom Closure Be Philanthropy’s ‘Fail Forward’ Moment?

inBloom ends
Image: Brad & Lexie Flickinger/Flickr (CC)

 

The recent announcement that inBloom, an ed-tech tech nonprofit, would be closing down after less than two years of operations has grabbed the attention of interest groups from multiple swaths of society.

For privacy advocates, inBloom’s collapse represented a win against the mass collection of personal data by external agents – be they for-profit, governmental, or non-profit. For educators, it was vindication against the growing belief that tech can solve all of traditional education’s failures in one fell swoop. For parents, it was relief that their children’s lives would no longer be subject to a massive data-mining project. And for those of us working in philanthropy, it was a reminder that even the most esteemed grantmakers (the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, in this case) can take calamitous missteps.

So what was inBloom and why was it so controversial?

inBloom was (or is, for a few more months) a data-collection nonprofit that received backing from the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation to the tune of $100 million. Its stated mission was to aggregate student data into a central repository, which teachers could then access through a dashboard and use to better accommodate student needs.

An Economist article lamenting inBloom’s closure noted:

It is worth bearing in mind that schools have been keeping electronic records for decades. In the 1983 film “War Games,” Matthew Broderick plays a fun-loving geek who, to impress a girl, changes her biology grade from an F to an A after breaking into the school’s computer system (watch film clip here).

 

But managing the technology is a struggle for schools: how to store, process and provide access to the data—not just student grades, but things like attendance, disciplinary actions, sports activities, medical records and so on. The data are often in different databases, incompatible formats and require different passwords. As a result, the data are not used effectively. For example, by aggregating them one might find that a certain teacher is particularly good with certain students (say, shy boys or rowdy girls) and organise schedules so that they teach those pupils. And the data are difficult to access (by a parent, for instance) or share (if a student transfers schools).

 

InBloom solved these woes, by providing a service for schools to store and set controls for their data—in the same way a computer operating system lets users store their content and chose their software to access those files.

But what seems simple and useful in theory may not be so straightforward in application. inBloom’s launch was beset with many issues that can be boiled down into two main points:

1) Not knowing/understanding their stakeholders

inBloom failed to take into account the privacy concerns of parents. It is true, as the Economist article points out, that schools already maintain data of different types, but what inBloom was collecting went beyond test scores and attendance records. According to the New York Times, “inBloom made it possible to categorize students with sensitive labels: Autistic. Tardy. ADHD. Removed by child protection services. Parent in military. Homeless. Pregnant. Witness. Perpetrator. Victim.” Parental concerns seem entirely justified when the depth of the data being collected is taken into consideration.

And judging from many online comments, teachers did not seem to buy into inBloom’s innovation either. Teachers would have been the main clients interacting with the inBloom’s interface on a daily basis, so it would have been crucial for teachers to find utility in the inBloom platform. But here are a few of the comments on the New York Time’s Bit Blog:

As a teacher, I don’t need lots of data about whether students show enthusiasm before I make my seating charts. The kids are right there in the room with me. I can tell. Also, what do those numbers even mean? How can someone be 67% enthusiastic? Furthermore, I don’t necessarily want to know before I start teaching a student whether he was a “bad kid” or a “good kid” in previous classes, because having a new teacher is (and should be) a fresh start. Finally, where does the pictured information come from? Is it one more data-entry job for the teacher? At what frequency? Are teachers supposed to sit down weekly and enter character scores into the computer? – Kate (Delaware)

A data collection project that no one who actually works in classrooms with children asked for has failed for the simple reason that it was unnecessary. We “tailor education to student’s individual learning needs” every day. Granted, some of us could work harder at it, but no matter how hard I try, I still cannot see how a national collection of student data will help me do it better. -StefanTeach (New York)

But was inBloom a victim of privacy paranoia, as its defenders have suggested? According to Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, this was no belated reaction on parents’ part, but a problem long brewing. In an open letter to the New York Department of Education, Haimson writes:

For more than two years, since the state entered into a data-sharing agreement with inBloom, you have refused to notify the public, hold hearings, or even answer parents’ questions about your plans to disclose the personal information of their children to this corporation.

2) Transparency needed

Aside from the extensive collection of data alone, many parents and privacy advocates were concerned with what inBloom would actually do with the data.

inBloom says it has a world class security infrastructure, and it was not directly engaged in the development of commercial products, but, as the NYT details, inBloom “proposed to serve as the gatekeeper of this volatile personal information — all the while offering to aid the software industry. It planned to provide a standardized data platform around which vendors could create products to market to multiple districts.” So while inBloom’s technology was open source and transparent, its intentions were not quite as clear. Dig a little deeper and you’ll also find that inBloom was connected to NewsCorp — an association that would understandably have many parents nervous over privacy invasion.

What happens next?

inBloom’s closure has received so much press partly because of its support from the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. Given both the Gates’s Foundation’s and Carnegie Corporation’s commitment to transparency, I think both organizations owe it to the public to comment on the rationale behind funding the project and what happens from here. Will the portion of the grant that has not already been spent simply be returned? In his letter announcing inBloom’s closure, inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger writes, “in full alignment with the inBloom Board of Directors and funders, I have made the decision to wind down the organization over the coming months.” So what did the board of directors and funders agree upon?

A setback of this magnitude really should not be brushed aside. It deserves discussion so that we can understand how philanthropists can continue to take risks and support innovation, but mitigate similar occurrences in the future. Because even though inBloom is coming to an end, there will be more ed-tech initiatives in the future, and a lot of them will likely involve data collection of some volume. To date, it seems neither the Gates Foundation nor Carnegie Corporation have spoken on the matter. Maybe there are some nondisclosure agreements, or maybe they’re still figuring out what to do next. But if no funder speaks up, I think it’s a real missed opportunity for open conversations about failing forward and learning from mistakes in philanthropy.

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