Links for January 20, 2012

Big data market survey: Hadoop solutions [Edd Dumbill/O’Reilly Radar].

Apache Hadoop is unquestionably the center of the latest iteration of big data solutions. At its heart, Hadoop is a system for distributing computation among commodity servers. It is often used with the Hadoop Hive project, which layers data warehouse technology on top of Hadoop, enabling ad-hoc analytical queries.

I’m starting my first ever project with Hadoop this week–a prototype of an analytics warehouse using Amazon Elastic MapReduce. Colleagues have told me EMR is a great way to get your head around Hadoop-based data processing.

CBO Report: Medicare pilot programs don’t control health-care costs [Megan McArdle/The Atlantic blogs]. McArdle describes what happened with a housing-project demolition program whose pilot studies suggested  much better effects than were actually seen at scale:

The initial study was small and involved highly screened people with a lot of support. And it seems to have suffered from publication bias–the most spectacular results got the most attention, even though these might just have been outliers.

This is distressingly common–not just in government or social-do-gooding research, but in organizations of all kinds–including corporations.

Programs at scale often don’t show results as good as pilot studies of those programs. More generally in program evaluation, it’s hard to find evidence of strong (or even weak) effects of interventions. Social systems are complex; factors other than those targeted by the intervention often determine outcomes. This is something I need to communicate regularly to my colleagues and our partners–student learning is largely determined by factors other than what we have control over. That’s not to say we shouldn’t improve our course design, teaching practices, and so forth but it is to say that there aren’t many easy pickings out there for improving student outcomes.

For-profits vs not-for-profits [Felix Salmon/Reuters blog].

I know full well that a lot of not-for-profit organizations are run in a dreadful fashion; I’m just not convinced that introducing a profit motive is always or even often the best way to fix that problem…. I very much doubt that for-profit education is ever a good idea. I just don’t see how the incentives there could possibly be aligned.

But the profit motive can’t provide optimal outcomes if there isn’t consumer discipline along with it. For-profit higher education is subsidized by the government in the form of grants and low-interest loans (and note that nonprofit education is subsidized in additional ways as well, in the case of public institutions). Would-be students do not have an incentive to seriously evaluate whether the education they are purchasing is worth what they pay, because there is a third-party payer involved. The situation is much like health care. Good discussion in post of the issues and controversy over for-profit higher education.