Finding North: The Role of Occupational Profiling

At the Oceans of Data Institute, our mission is to transform education to help people succeed in school, work, and life in a data-intensive world. Unfortunately, the book explaining exactly how to do that hasn’t been written yet—so a big part of our job right now is to figure out what a “data literate individual” looks like, and from that information, to determine the steps required in a person’s educational career for them to become data literate.

In his life-changing book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey tells readers to “Begin with the end in mind.” In the context of transforming education to promote data literacy, this means understanding the skills, knowledge, and behaviors that characterize professionals working with data. The approach we’ve taken is to create “occupational profiles” of individuals who work with data in various ways.

The first profile created at ODI was for the “Big-Data-Enabled Specialist.” To create this profile, ODI’s Joyce Malyn-Smith and Joe Ippolito facilitated a multi-day workshop with experts who use big data in a wide variety of settings and disciplines—from technology companies like Google and Microsoft to law enforcement. Over the course of the workshop, Joyce and Joe worked with the panelists to discover a common set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors shared across their various professions. This was broader than any specific job an individual had, and represented all of the shared work tasks, knowledge, skills and attributes required to perform their entire range of job functions.

In a subsequent workshop, many of the same big-data-enabled specialists were joined by a diverse group of education experts representing all grade levels. Using the Profile of the Big-Data-Enabled Specialist, we began our work by developing a working definition of the “data literate individual” as they would exist as a high school graduate (captured in our Building Global Interest in Data Literacy: A Dialogue report). From there, we started laying out a learning trajectory, from kindergarten through 12th grade, which would help produce such an individual. There is still much work to be done to develop and test this learning trajectory—but it is a start.

A few months later, we assembled a different group of data-using professionals—this time to talk about the skills, knowledge and behaviors required for “middle skills data specialists.” These are the individuals who work regularly with data, but only as one part of a broader set of work skills. Specifically, we wanted to focus on the kinds of careers that one could pursue with an Associate’s degree, or a credential that could be obtained at a community college. As with the “big-data-enabled specialist” work above, the occupational profiling exercise is intended as a first step towards the development of a stackable credential system in data literacy, that can be implemented in community colleges across the United States.

Data literacy is not a stand-alone discipline; rather, it is an interdisciplinary way of deriving actionable meaning from data, which is increasingly integral to a number of professional fields—from medicine, to agriculture, to merchandising. It involves scientific methodology, applied mathematical knowledge, and technological skills.  Most of all, however, as we’ve learned from all the experts we’ve worked with, it is about analytical thinking. That’s where the compass points. And that’s where we are beginning to plot the course.

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