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Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

The following guest post is from David Eaves who is the founder of datadotgc.ca, an open data portal powered by our CKAN software that crowdsources the location of open data sets in Canada (Canada has no equivalent of data.gov or data.gov.uk). David is also a member of the OKF’s Working Group on Open Government Data. The post originally appeared on eaves.ca.

We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy.

In a brilliant article on The Guardian website, Charles Arthur argued that a global flood of government data is being opened up to the public (sadly, not in Canada) and that we are going to need an army of people to make it understandable.

I agree. We need a data-literate citizenry, not just a small elite of hackers and policy wonks. And the best way to cultivate that broad-based literacy is not to release in small or measured quantities, but to flood us with data. To provide thousands of niches that will interest people in learning, playing and working with open data. But more than this we also need to think about cultivating communities where citizens can exchange ideas as well as involve educators to help provide support and increase people’s ability to move up the learning curve.

Interestingly, this is not new territory. We have a model for how to make this happen – one from which we can draw lessons or foresee problems. What model? Consider a process similar in scale and scope that happened just over a century ago: the library revolution.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, governments and philanthropists across the western world suddenly became obsessed with building libraries – lots of them. Everything from large ones like the New York Main Library to small ones like the thousands of tiny, one-room county libraries that dot the countryside. Big or small, these institutions quickly became treasured and important parts of any city or town. At the core of this project was that literate citizens would be both more productive and more effective citizens.

But like open data, this project was not without controversy. It is worth noting that at the time some people argued libraries were dangerous. Libraries could spread subversive ideas – especially about sexuality and politics – and that giving citizens access to knowledge out of context would render them dangerous to themselves and society at large. Remember, ideas are a dangerous thing. And libraries are full of them.

Cora McAndrews Moellendick, a Masters of Library Studies student who draws on the work of Geller sums up the challenge beautifully:

…for a period of time, censorship was a key responsibility of the librarian, along with trying to persuade the public that reading was not frivolous or harmful… many were concerned that this money could have been used elsewhere to better serve people. Lord Rodenberry claimed that “reading would destroy independent thinking.” Librarians were also coming under attack because they could not prove that libraries were having any impact on reducing crime, improving happiness, or assisting economic growth, areas of keen importance during this period… (Geller, 1984)

Today when I talk to public servants, think tank leaders and others, most grasp the benefit of “open data” – of having the government sharing the data it collects. A few however, talk about the problem of just handing data over to the public. Some questions whether the activity is “frivolous or harmful.” They ask “what will people do with the data?” “They might misunderstand it” or “They might misuse it.” Ultimately they argue we can only release this data “in context”. Data after all, is a dangerous thing. And governments produce a lot of it.

As in the 19th century, these arguments must not prevail. Indeed, we must do the exact opposite. Charges of “frivolousness” or a desire to ensure data is only released “in context” are code to obstruct or shape data portals to ensure that they only support what public institutions or politicians deem “acceptable”. Again, we need a flood of data, not only because it is good for democracy and government, but because it increases the likelihood of more people taking interest and becoming literate.

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

This is why coders in cities like Vancouver and Ottawa come together for open data hackathons, to share ideas and skills on how to use and engage with open data.

But smart governments should not only rely on small groups of developers to make use of open data. Forward-looking governments – those that want an engaged citizenry, a 21st-century workforce and a creative, knowledge-based economy in their jurisdiction – will reach out to universities, colleges and schools and encourage them to get their students using, visualizing, writing about and generally engaging with open data. Not only to help others understand its significance, but to foster a sense of empowerment and sense of opportunity among a generation that could create the public policy hacks that will save lives, make public resources more efficient and effective and make communities more livable and fun. The recent paper published by the University of British Columbia students who used open data to analyze graffiti trends in Vancouver is a perfect early example of this phenomenon.

When we think of libraries, we often just think of a building with books. But 19th century mattered not only because they had books, but because they offered literacy programs, books clubs, and other resources to help citizens become literate and thus, more engaged and productive. Open data catalogs need to learn the same lesson. While they won’t require the same centralized and costly approach as the 19th century, governments that help foster communities around open data, that encourage their school system to use it as a basis for teaching, and then support their citizens’ efforts to write and suggest their own public policy ideas will, I suspect, benefit from happier and more engaged citizens, along with better services and stronger economies.

So what is your government/university/community doing to create its citizen army of open data analysts?

Other posts by David that you might find of interest include:

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  • Adam Cooper

    This is an interesting idea – that literacy was not a pre-requisite for libraries – and one that I broadly approve of in terms of open data. Your final paragraphs are significant, I think; public libraries featured (and still do) secondary or tertiary material. The public does not generally deal with primary historical sources or scientific literature. It seems to me that we critically need to increase the supply of intellectually-honest interpreters of data to compensate for the tendencies of the press.

    At present (in the UK at least) there seems to be an over-emphasis on holding the public sector to account through open data which risks missing out a mass of data from which the citizen might gain value or find interest. Some of this valuable/interesting data remains behind the pay walls of Trading Funds. I rather think we still need to go through a stage where public demand for open data is developed.

    As to your final question: one pressing need for universities is to create graduates who have new aspects of digital literacy contextualised to their discipline. What exactly this means and how to assess it remains to be converged upon.

  • Joshua

    The privacy and misuse of the information derived from the libraries can be a daunting task and difficult to control especially if the information is information by private and owned by an individual.

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