Project Unicorn Reminds Me of inBloom #studentprivacy

Staring at a school provided screen, often smaller than the one many adults work on, a 21st Century school child works as a research subject for outside companies, sharing information and producing data that these companies will then mine and use to develop new and improved goods and/or services (e.g. learning tools) to sell to benefit investors. Yet folks and firms, including InnovateEDU Inc. and its initiative Project Unicorn, involved in the child data collection business, do NOT transparently

  • ask for and receive parents’ explicit permission prior to collecting a child’s information and data,
  • inform parents of the specific name of each third party recipient of the child’s data (who?),
  • inform parents of the specific data elements each recipient will collect (what?), and
  • inform parents of each recipient’s specific and intended purpose in collecting and  using the data (why?).

Further, insufficient independent long term evidence exists to link the collection of a child’s information and data (e.g. in conjunction with a data interoperability project) to that particular child demonstrating substantially more academic improvement than the child would otherwise make. Parents and guardians must NOT be required to share their child’s information and data with outside third parties as a condition of their child receiving a free public education, whether it be with an entity like the now failed inBloom or InnovateEdu Inc./Project Unicorn and/or others of their ilk.

A paradigm shift from the school default being to share children’s information and data to the default being to NOT share children’s information and data must take place so that parents may then choose whether to exercise informed consent and “opt in” to sharing with the Project Unicorns of this world but could otherwise not be required to share.

opt out graphic

Without fanfare, Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) made the vague Project  Unicorn pledge, apparently agreeing to have its students commit personal information and data to Project Unicorn and its vendors. There is no provision for parents to “opt out” of or better yet to “opt in” to sharing their child’s information and data with InnovateEDU Inc/Project Unicorn or its pledged vendors.


Screenshot of Some of Project Unicorn’s Schools

Screenshot_20180906-084026_Hancom Office Editor

Screenshot of Project Unicorn “Student Data” Rubric

Project Unicorn is reportedly run by InnovateEDU Inc., a New York business entity registered as a not for profit. InnovateEDU Inc.’s address, 230 Ashland Place Ste 19C, Brooklyn, New York, 11217, appears to be a residential condominium building. InnovateEDU Inc.’s 2016 IRS 990 form showed reportable compensation to its executive director in the amount of $166, 212 and a cash grant of $86,518 for the general support of the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter school. InnovateEDU Inc.’s website list of supporters includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the NewSchools Venture Fund among others.

Innovateedu, Inc./Project Unicorn runs a data interoperability pilot for participating schools (e.g. public and charter) to share students’ information and data with third party ed tech vendors and is using values and needs based selling techniques to do so. The value proposition is that it’s all for the kids, closing the achievement gap, and improving teaching, which in turn creates a need to track children’s data to help monitor their progress thereby creating a false dilemna.

However, we should all remember schools and people can be “all for the kids” and not participate in Project Unicorn.

The Ed Tech Market continues to get bigger–to believe ed tech vendors and those they associate with will not use such information and data for commercial purposes, in addition to any philanthropic purpose their representatives may espouse, is naive at best. Parents must have the right of  determination about whether their child’s information and/or data should be used for commercial purposes, even if InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn proposes multiple uses.

At the beginning of this year, Forbes magazine reported that “[i]n 2017, across every market involved in ed tech, international funding reached a new record of $9.52 billion.”  Further, in 2017, “preK-12 companies received 13% of the overall global investment….” (Also see here.)

InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn reminds me of a smaller inBloom, a firm that was formed, in part at least, to collect data about children. inBloom failed following parents’ and privacy advocates’ protests about the collection of children’s data.

If parents and privacy advocates did not trust in InBloom (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) why should they trust InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn?

K through 12 school data must not follow children as adults into the workforce. If parents, after informed prior consent, opt in to sharing their children’s information and/or data, such sharing and storage must end no later than the earlier of the date the parent opts out, the child turns eighteen, or the child graduates.

The bottom line is that a child’s information and data should not be shared without prior informed consent, and data mining on children without prior informed consent is unethical. If parents choose to opt in to sharing their children’s information and data, and it is used for a commercial purpose, including a failed commercial venture, these children, many of whom are low income, should be compensated.

It is easy to imagine a world where an individual’s personal health, education, and social emotional data are merged and can be accessed by employers and used to slot individuals into jobs–a very serf like dystopian vision of the future. Ed tech and other school vendors’ and their affiliates’ desire to collect children’s information and data does NOT supercede parents’ and children’s right of privacy–the default must be to NOT share children’s information and data with profiteering ed tech vendors and the not for profits they affiliate with. InnovateEDU Inc./Project Unicorn appear to be ramping up fast. The time to take action to protect children’s privacy is now.


Additional thoughts/comments:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot raises important ethical issues including about informed consent and research involving individuals, and I highly recommend it.

The word parents refers to guardians as well.

A business is engaged in a commercial purpose when it develops and/or improves a good and/or service (e.g. “learning tool”) to generate a cash flow and/or create a financial benefit for the business, whether in cash or kind, even if no profit is earned.

A business engaged in a commercial purpose should not be able to avoid responsibility for privacy breaches by affiliating itself with a not for profit entity or coalition or similar entity.

Characterizing privacy advocates, parents, and others who have concerns about the collection of children’s information and data as “fearful” is an ad hominem attack. There are sufficient data breaches that have been made public to justify concerns.

Finally, a child is more than data points. Teachers, who are able to interact with and know a child, must not be turned into simply managers of data.


This entry was posted in Children's Data, Data Mining, Ed Tech Ethics, Fiduciary Responsibility, Informed Consent, InnovateEDU, Iowa City Schools, Opt In, Opt Out, Paradigm Shift, Privacy, Project Unicorn, School Board Ethics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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