Data Literacy Has Become Essential – An Interview with Jonathan Levin

By TAP Guest Blogger

Posted on April 24, 2020


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Jonathan Levin is Philip H Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Winner of the John Bates Clark Medal in 2011, his recent research has focused on internet platforms, the healthcare system, and ways to incorporate new datasets into economic research.

Here Professor Levin talks to TNIT News about his work on a life-saving economic mechanism to promote vaccines, and the challenges of preparing leaders for the digital age.

 

Photograph: Jonathan Levin (Stanford)

Please note that this interview was conducted in February 2020.

 

Does the Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business have any time to carry out research? If so, could you tell us about your most recent work?

 

My job puts me in a position to come across great research topics, but less time to execute on them! I did just write a short paper with Michael Kremer and Chris Snyder looking at a program we helped to design about a decade ago, the Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) for pneumococcal vaccine. It originated with an idea that Michael had to correct the market failures that have led to underinvestment in vaccines targeted at low-income countries.

 

Vaccines give some of the highest returns on investment in terms of saving lives, but we lack vaccines for diseases such as malaria, and the historical adoption of existing vaccines in developing countries has been terribly slow. With an AMC, donors pledge a fund to subsidize purchases of newly developed vaccines, creating an incentive for vaccine development and for investments in production capacity.

 

The pneumococcal AMC involved a donor fund of $1.5 billion, and several billion dollars from GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccine Initiatives), to help low-income countries purchase the vaccine, with economically motivated rules to allocate the money. A decade on, 150 million children have been vaccinated, with an estimated 700,000 lives saved. It is hard to assess exactly what would have happened without the program, but adoption of pneumococcal vaccine has been much faster than historical norms, and quite a bit faster than adoption of rotavirus vaccine, which happened at a similar time without an AMC.

 

There are a still a lot of interesting questions, primarily around pricing and the potential for ongoing competition in the market. It was a lot of fun to write the paper and see what we could learn from the past 10 years. I give enormous credit to Michael for coming up with an economic mechanism that took hold of people’s imaginations, generated so much support, and has had such a significant impact.

 

How do you prepare future business leaders for the huge changes that AI, machine learning, and data science are bringing to organizations?

 

“Skills that will be at a premium in organizations are ones that can’t easily be automated: leadership, communication, teamwork, being able to pose good questions and deal with ambiguity. The last job to be automated will be the CEO’s.”

 

Data literacy has become essential. At the GSB, we’ve rethought our core data-science curriculum, which we teach in a flipped classroom model, very hands-on, with students working on real datasets. Then there are opportunities to take advanced classes in the business school and across campus.

 

Even more important, we want students to understand the opportunities created by digital technology, but also to think responsibly about its consequences. One of the lessons of the past decade is that technology can move faster than the regulatory framework and public understanding of its effects. Business leaders need to be able to think ahead about the social and political effects of technology.

 

This brings up a final point that is sometimes lost in discussions of AI, and is especially relevant for MBA education. Over time, the skills that will be at a premium in organizations are ones that can’t easily be automated: leadership, communication, teamwork, being able to pose good questions and deal with ambiguity. The last job to be automated will be the CEO’s. An effective MBA education combines analytical training and humanistic training, and the rise of AI makes the latter even more important.

 

What role does economics play in that education process?

 

The view we’ve taken at Stanford is that the data revolution and the rise of AI inherently cross many disciplines. Last year, we created the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (Stanford HAI), to span the campus and connect technologists, social scientists, and humanists thinking about different aspects of AI.

 

“Economics naturally leads you to think about the secondand third-order consequences of technological change; the way that people and firms respond and adapt when there’s a powerful new general-purpose technology, which is what we have today.”

 

An example of how that works is a new class we started offering at the business school, co-taught by Fei-Fei Li, one of the leading computer scientists in AI, and Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist who studies meaning and happiness. They enroll an equal mix of MBA students and CS graduate students, and the class is about designing AI systems that promote human well-being.

 

What about economics? I’m biased of course, but economics is incredibly helpful when it comes to thinking about the implications of new technology. Economics naturally leads you to think about the second- and third-order consequences of technological change; the way that people and firms respond and adapt when there’s a powerful new general-purpose technology, which is what we have today. There’s also another valuable aspect of economics training, namely that it teaches you to use data to tell coherent stories; or conversely, to see if a story you’d like to tell is supported or disproved by data. We’re starting to emphasize that aspect of economics more in the way we teach, and it’s terrific.

 

What aspects of your job are you most passionate about?

 

First, something I love about Stanford is being right at the frontier of new things that are happening in business, in technology, in society. In my current job, I get to spend a lot of time thinking about those things, and how the GSB can stay ahead of them. Second, I’m a big believer in institutions, and great universities are some of the most important institutions on this planet. I find it hard to imagine doing something more meaningful than helping to lead one. Finally, it’s hard to enjoy being a dean unless you take a lot of pleasure in the success of others, because a big part of the job is enabling faculty and students to realize their own aspirations. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people who manage to do pretty amazing things on a regular basis.

 

Photograph: Jonathan Levin greeting students

 

The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT). “Data Literacy Has Become Essential – An Interview with Jonathan Levin” was originally published in TNIT’s April 2020 newsletter.

 
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