Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua

How to recognise an attack of the zombie (data)

​​The authors are presenting their research on recognising ‘Zombie Data’ across its lifecycle in education systems at the AARE conference today PPIE SIG 3 Concurrent Session 5

“We collect it [the data] all throughout the year and I’ve never actually seen what happens with it. Where does it go and what is it used for?” (Primary Teacher)

We inhabit a world infiltrated by zombie data. Check your phone – contact details of forgotten people, games you have long stopped playing (although impressive high score!), photos of places you don’t remember, and downloaded TikToks you will never watch again. These data, gathered with little or forgotten purpose, that are no longer relevant to current lives exist as zombie data. In our education systems, zombie data devour time, space and energy. 

We seek to provide recognition of how such data are generated and the consequences of their existence. Vast amounts of data are created in classrooms and schools, retained in physical and virtual files. Individual’s digitalised data becomes part of the representation of populations and even when anonymised their datafied doppelgangers continue to walk in the world informing policy, practices and propaganda.

Defining Zombie data

We found excessive, purposeless and redundant data – ‘zombie data’. Those in the technology, economics, business, and “regtech” fields indicate an awareness that zombie data, while considered dead, ‘lurks around…waiting to be called to life again” (Datastreams, 2017). Such data has also been referred to as “huge waves of numbers without meaning or relevance” (Balleny, 2013) that create datasets “without any purpose or clear use case in mind” (Kaufmann, 2014 in D‘Ignazio & Klein, 2020).  

Zombie data reside in school systems, lurking in the infrastructures used to manage student and school data. These data are called to life and used as evidence to inform practices and policy beyond their original purpose. Study A found that policies enacted in classrooms are informed by, and result in, the production of data by students. Many of these data are deidentified, stripped of context and become publicly available on government open data sites, as reported in Study B. They remain disconnected from their previous lives ready to walk through the world at the drop of a politician’s bright idea or reporter’s query. Zombie data are seldom recognised, and we offer this warning to all, to consider the role we have in creating and maintaining such beings. 

While we were expecting zombie data to be situational, that is situated within the specific conditions of particular sites within an education system, we heard the same concerns raised across the panoramic view of our combined studies.

How do you recognise Zombie data?

The first criteria of zombie data is excessiveness. When it came to the collection of data in classrooms, a secondary student commented, “Make less… don’t try and get any extra information if you don’t need it.” A classroom teacher said, “data for data’s sake is what is killing education and killing the learning process.” A school leader reflected this view when they acknowledged that, “I have collected data this year that was a complete waste of my time and everyone else’s.” Senior bureaucrats also recognised the problem of excessive data, “What do you do with all that data, that ever-growing amount of information and pattern recognition processes, and how do you serve that up and consume that as a principal with reducing limited amounts of free time – how do you consume that?” At every level, from student through to bureaucrat, excessive data was both recognised and refuted. As an identifiable form of zombie data, such ‘excess’ carries considerable implications that are vital to consider.  

The second criteria of zombie data is that it is without purpose. Students were frustrated by their participation in the creation of purposeless data. “I was super angry that they were making me do this test for no good reason. There’s no reason for this test, it’s just so the government can keep bragging rights.” Teachers were likewise frustrated, “I already know what they [students] can’t do. I don’t need to keep pre-testing, pre-testing; I know where the kids are at, I know where they’re struggling. So, I purely do them [pre-tests] to tick a box.” Bureaucrats recognised the issue of the misalignment of data and purpose, or lack of purpose, “We are interested in getting all this information and making meaning out of it, generating knowledge – the problems that stand in the way are the quality of the data for that purpose.” The lines of tension in relation to the purpose(less) of data, are indicative of how zombie data manifest across its own lifecycle from classroom through to system contexts.

Redundancy is the third criteria used to identify zombie data in education. Data that may have had an initial function but is no longer of use. It is perhaps the most problematic of zombies, the ongoing “obsessiveness that we have about data” was explained by ‘Roger’, a senior bureaucrat who said that ‘if you torture numbers long enough they’ll confess to anything.” These data are then used for “confirmatory evidence”. As another senior bureaucrat explained, “Another way in using data is that confirmatory evidence scenario where a position is believed to be true or otherwise and then data is found to support that.” Such data may have been made redundant, devoid of its original function and then ‘tortured’ back to life. Once brought back from the dead, zombie data can threaten to haunt those in schools as this school leader expressed, “If the data is not good and it’s released out into the community, then that impact comes back onto our school.”

Combatting zombie data

While we have fun with the term ‘zombie data’ we do so with acknowledgment to the tragic history of the term zombies from 18th Century Haitian slave culture. We draw on the modern evolution archetype ‘zombie’ that developed through Haiti’s folklore and contemporary pop culture.  

We encourage educational practitioners to recognise the problematic creation and use of zombie data across the different stages of data’s life. Data gestate within evidence-informed policies prior to coming into being. The ‘birth’ of data is identified by looking to the actions of those who ‘do’ the assessments, perform behaviours, and arrive at school – identified in study A as the ‘data producers’, that is, the students. Teachers record assessment, behaviour, attendance, and enrolment data, in data infrastructures and by their actions (and those of the technocrats) data become digitalised. Once digitalised, data can lurk, in legislative archives, open data sites and old newspapers – and wait. To combat zombie data, we need to ensure all data are not excessive, they are purposeful, and they are allowed to rest in peace.

Where did we get our data? We determined the moments of data zombification across data’s lifecycle across our two research projects. By doing so, a panoramic view from classrooms to the governing bureaucratic centres of state education in Queensland, Australia, is created. In study A (Rafaan’s), data were gathered from 52 students from across Years Three to Nine in 19 focus group discussions, interviews with 27 teachers, seven school leaders and year-long observations from within a range of participants’ classrooms, professional learning communities (PLCs) and teacher preparation days. These data were then considered in conjunction with the 68 interviews conducted throughout study B (Jennifer’s) with school leaders and senior bureaucrats in Queensland’s state government run, public education system.

Dr Jennifer Clutterbuck is a sessional academic, her educational career spans early childhood classrooms, school leadership and policy roles throughout the public education system in Queensland. Dr Clutterbuck’s research focuses on the inhabitants (human and non-human), and the happenings within the topological spaces created as policy, data and digital infrastructures interact. In 2020, Jennifer received the Grassie and Bassett Prize in Educational Administration from The University of Queensland for her doctoral thesis. Her recent publications focus on the role of data in shaping the lives of those within education. Twitter: @Jenclutterbuck

Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua commenced her career as a middle years classroom teacher, working in both public and private schooling contexts. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia where she teaches assessment and pedagogy in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Her research focuses on the nature and effects of the datafication of assessment and learning on student, teacher and school practices. In 2021, Rafaan was the recipient of the Carolyn D Baker memorial research prize as well as the UQ Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Tutor Award for sustained excellence in teaching. She was also selected as a Global Change Scholar for the UQ Global Change Institute. Twitter: @RafaanDNgametua