The debate around how to use open data and analytics to improve society and key areas such as education has hit the mainstream and this is especially true in Brazil, one of the countries leading the path in terms of open use of information.
According to Open Knowledge International, Brazil has evolved in terms of the availability and accessibility of government information over recent years: data from the global non-profit organization shows that the country now ranks 7th in 2017, from 26th in 2014.
But how can vast amounts of open information be used objectively to deliver results, specifically in education - where nearly 18 percent of the Brazilian population is functionally illiterate, which means that despite knowing letters and numbers, individuals are unable to comprehend a sentence or perform a simple mathematical operation?
According to Cesar Wedemann, chief executive at QEdu, a startup focused on using openly-available insight to enhance the delivery of educational content across public schools, this is not only possible but also a battle worth fighting.
"The size of the [education] problem in Brazil is comparable to the size of the country - huge. Adequate learning has traditionally been associated with private schools in the richest areas but we believe that tech and the use of open data and analytics can help turn that [perception] around," Wedemann told delegates at an industry event in São Paulo last week.
"We don't want to intervene in how schools are run or change curricula, but ensure that kids get out of school having properly learned the things they were supposed to learn," the entrepreneur added.
QEdu's vision is based on enabling school governors and teachers to drive structural, long-term improvements in how they are delivering content to students. One of the ways it does that is by crunching data on Prova Brasil, a test schools undergo periodically to assess the quality of education offered by the Brazilian educational system based on standardized tests and socioeconomic questionnaires.
By identifying what are the specific areas where kids are failing at school, we get out of the simplistic debate that they are just not interested in certain subjects— Cesar Wedemann, chief executive, QEdu
In the test, students respond to questions related to Portuguese-language learning, with a specific focus on reading, as well as mathematics, where the focus is problem solving. In the socioeconomic questionnaire, students provide information about context factors that may be associated with performance.
Teachers and school governors also respond to questionnaires that aim to collect demographic data, as well as professional profiles and working conditions at schools. In addition to Prova Brasil, QEdu is also analyzing data on other government educational data including census, indicators and data on a yearly national exam, which evaluates high school students in Brazil.
According to Wedemann, when specific areas within language and maths are broken down by using QEdu's data analytics approach, specific issues that need to be addressed become more obvious and problems can be solved faster.
"By identifying what are the specific areas where kids are failing at school, we get out of the common, simplistic debate that they are just not interested in certain subjects and start to be more proactive in solving these issues," Wedemann said.
QEdu's aim is not to use the insight on which sub-topics within subjects are performing better or worse at schools, but to promote conversations between schools rather than ranking them, according to Wedemann. "Lots of best practices can be encouraged between teachers at different schools, such as videos they used to explain a certain topic, field trips they have done and so on - that way, a more qualified discussion is promoted about something closer to the reality, with more actionable results."
The platform requires critical mass in order to deliver its objectives, but the startup is already making inroads in that respect: according to its chief executive, QEdu already engages 160,000 people across Brazil who have an interest in education. In addition, the company has clocked up some 2.5 million visits to its website over the last 12 months.
As well as the cultural changes introduced in schools as a result of these granular insights, another challenge that QEdu faces is related to the lack of up-to-date information provided by the government, as assessment data can take up to two years to become publicly available. However, the startup is looking to work around that by getting data that is more frequently updated, in areas such as exams carried out at schools.
The examinations initiative optimizes examination processes, with the digitization of student scores, replacing pen and paper with digital devices. This helps education departments diagnose and act on critical learning points based on reporting. This in turn increases the likelihood that students can learn content appropriately.
"Schools have started to realize that our tools can help them save time and therefore resources in the examination process, but our intention is not to primarily reduce cost and complexity of examinations, but ensuring that kids are learning what they should," Wedemann said.
As an association rather than an actual business looking to primarily earn from the products it develops - it is backed by Lemann Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on public education led by Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann - QEdu is nevertheless looking for ways to monetize its offering and become self-sustainable through new products.
"Our main concern is to improve education in Brazil through technology and data, but we want those new products to become a form of monetization that allows the networks that use QEdu to reduce their costs while adding new solutions that help increase the learning of their students," Wedemann said.
"We expect to achieve financial sustainability along those lines, without threatening our impact purposes," he pointed out, adding that the startup is keen to continue engaging not only schools and school networks about improvements that analytics can bring, but also parents and students themselves.
"We believe that technology and data are intertwined with the development of any society. And we cannot talk about improving Brazil and its educational system without having a conversation about data," the entrepreneur concluded.