Suggestions for a Big Data curriculum for public managers

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.49.08 AMThe Journal of Public Affairs Education just published a symposium on Information Technology and Public Affairs Education. The symposium combines articles with a broad range of viewpoints, including IT skills and competencies, challenges adopting new technologies such as GIS, and how these topics can be integrated into the MPA curriculum.

I contributed a paper titled “Big Data in Public Affairs Education”. I found the topic interesting because it is challenging program directors to reconsider the existing MPA curriculum: There is a lot of conversation that MPA programs should focus on emerging topics that are now relevant to the challenges public sector employees face in their day-to-day operations. These topics include the use of Internet-generated data to combine them with administratively collected data and display them on dashboards for real-time decision-making. But also other topics, such as using GIS technology and sensors to make cities ‘smart’. There is usually very little room in the standard curriculum to integrate these topics.

Therefore I decided to review the existing literature, show what is already taught in MPA programs and where the gaps are, and then create a syllabus tailor-made for future public managers. My opinion is that big data is not an IT topic – and it makes little sense to compete with Data Science programs at iSchools or computer science departments. Instead, it is a very real management problem and Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 9.37.43 AMshould be taught using a critical management perspective.

I used Mason’s PAPA model to cover different dimensions of the issue and provided literature and cases that cover 13 different modules for a semester-long course on Big Data Management in the Public Sector.

The journal is open access. The full symposium is available here and my article on Big Data is available here.

Here is the abstract:


Public affairs schools face the challenge of including emergent topics in their curricula to prepare students for the public sector job market. Some such topics reflect advances in the use of information technologies; others reflect updates to industry standards or changing needs of public sector information management professionals. This article focuses on big data that are created through citizens’ use of new technologies and the combination of administratively collected data with online data. Big data require changes in government information management skills, including collection, cleaning, and interpreting unstructured and unfiltered data; real-time decision making based on early signals and patterns that emerge; and new organizational roles and tasks, such as open innovation and change management. This article reviews the existing literature, compares big data requirements in neighboring disciplines, and suggests 13 modules for a big data syllabus that extend Mason’s PAPA model of ethical considerations for the information age.

Please cite as:

Mergel, I. (2016): Big Data in Public Affairs Education, in: Journal of Public Affairs Education, 22(2), pp. 231-248.

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