Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

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.

Yesterday, 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?

41 thoughts on “Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

  1. Aaron McGowan

    Great article David!Just in response to your last question… Fanshawe College and the IT program which I currently attend- there is nothing being done to support or even adapt to the open data movements within the “class environment” to my knowledge.At Fanshawe, specifically within the course I am – we spend more time at doing nothing and useless class projects which will NEVER and I repeat NEVER be done or used within industry (from my experience at least) then anything else. Something that I would love to see implemented and used within the class room environment would be open data. I have actually approached the Chair of IT at the college with this idea to introduce open data into the class projects which then students are able to actually use real data for their class projects. Colleges doing this, in my opinion could be very beneficial for the community and the student's portfolio when they graduate.What are your thoughts and ideas on this?

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  2. Andrew

    Just wanted to thank you for your consistently great blog and this post in particular. The opening excerpt is the most compact argument in favour of open data I've ever seen and will make it that much easier to argue in favour of it to people who've never been confronted with the idea. It's great that most people within the public sector seem to be open to the idea (by your own observations), but to my own, non public-sector eyes, the general citizenry has yet to even be confronted with the idea of being allowed access to government information, and all too many don't even know why they would want it.

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  3. Datalit

    Thanks for this. This is really interesting and something I slightly follow, as a librarian, armchair social scientist, nonprofit sector worker. Not being a data head myself, I don't feel properly armed to work in this area or to do know how to manipulate the data to get interesting findings from it. Quite frankly it turns my stomach to think of the piles of data out there and what we could do with it. But as data about individuals is now being collected from us on an obscenely frequent basis (through social media, corporations, governments, etc.) it is really important that society becomes much more data literate. We are ignorant of what our information is going to be used for, how it could be used, and what we could potentially also find out to mobilize civil action. Canadian governments must make public data more available for a much lower cost and a quicker turnaround time (for the love of pete! a person could grow old with the federal turnaround time on data. At the same time, we all need some basic data and statistical literacy training. This could be the next great literacy revolution for our society.

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  4. Jonathan Strang

    David, You've seized on some very valuable points. I agree with you that making society more data literate is important. But I think you miss the mark. In order for that to happen, you need to have information architecture in place so that people can find and make use of that data. And you need information specialists (i.e. librarians) to do that. Libraries and digital repositories alike are nothing without people who make them more usable.Librarians have long been working towards creating metadata standards for digital repositories. Dublin Core and the Open Archives Initiative are two such that spring readily to mind. Metadata standards are important because they allow for proper harvesting by a number of online databases that then allow people to search for your data. I laud all the work that goes into all of these open data portals. But they definitely need more curation if you want to generate greater use. Your library needs some librarians.

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  5. Steve Ardire

    Hi David – very nice post ! “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”. Yes but easier said than done unless you have the right methodology of course ;) “So what is your government/university/community doing to create its citizen army of open data analysts?”Well with http://www.citizen-dan.org we're addressing this issue from an information architecture & management POV where data is put “in context” from the get go and where the data relationships can maintained “in context” ( that's the hard part ) 1. Leverage published open data structured datasets e.ghttp://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog However, just publishing open datasets begs the question what are the most meaningful things users want to do especially for information intensive harder-to-solve problems like policy formation and change? 2. Aggregate & map into useful open semantic frameworks ( this is the “in context” part and our core expertise ) Why?  Well one good reason is this provides more meaning to data relationships thereby making it more readily understandable and actionable for Gov2.0 apps and initiatives. 3. Bring more meaningful citizen engagement into process to create a proactive dialog to help shape policy. also See Listening to the Enterprise: Total Open Solutionshttp://www.mkbergman.com/884/listening-to-the-enterprise-total-open-solutions-part-3/  - Stevesardire@gmail.com

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  7. Marcel Fortin

    Good work! Something else to think about. Libraries also have a history of sharing, disseminating, finding, helping out, and even archiving information. So why not go one step further in the open data world and involve libraries in the open data movement? the academic model of data libraries could easily be expanded to help build the open data world. there's knowledge out there in libraries in how to deal with digital data, why not take advantage of it?Marcel FortinMap and Data LibraryUniversity of Toronto

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  8. David Eaves

    Jonathan, thank you for the comment. Not sure that this is so much of a “but” comment as an “and” comment. It feels like you are needlessly putting yourself in opposition to me! I agree with everything you've said and my whole post is explicitly about how open data catalogs should become more like libraries (although with limits). Great comments and I totally agree – search and curation is one of the things that will make or break data catalogs.

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  9. Aaron McGowan

    His response,”In terms of the Open Data concept starting to enter into the classroomthat is exactly where we would like to go. In fact I sent the newsarticle about your app to all the professors in your program as an ideaof some of the things are students could be working on through projects.Certainly by having Open Data, the project possibilities are endless andI am sure you would find support from the Professors. Project basedlearning is something we are working on building more of with the goalof students building a portfolio for use when they are done school. Infact the new game program is project and portfolio based. It takes timeto make those changes in existing programs, but I am confident we willget there. I think your work has been a good example of what could bewithin the classroom.”

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  10. sardire

    Oh and regarding Jonathan Strang comment “Librarians have long been working towards creating metadata standards for digital repositories. Dublin Core and the Open Archives Initiative are two such that spring readily to mind”.Yes indeed and at this years International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications http://www.asis.org/Conferences/DC2010/speakers… Mike Bergman, Structured Dynamics CEO ( and developers of Citizen Dan ) is one the keynote speakers.

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  11. Deepak Sahasrabudhe

    Great post David,I agree with Marcel Fortin… When assembling information for a community indicator system that I and others are developing for Winnipeg, one key data source was the Winnipeg Public Library – not only did they have some of the data I needed on hand, but they knew where to go for the rest…. I also found the person I was working with at the library had a great understanding of semantic computing concepts and why I needed the things I was looking for. In summary, libraries are a great resource not only as repositories but also as partners in helping citizens make meaning out of the data.

    Reply
  12. mfioretti

    David, and all readers,I have just started a research project for an italian University on the advantages of opening public sector information produced by local Public Administrations. The details of this project are at http://stop.zona-m.net/node/175I would really appreciate your help in spreading the word as much aspossible about this project, and especially about the requests forinformation and real world cases described in the “Call for help”section of the page above. (my email address is mfioretti, at nexaima . net)

    Reply
  13. WES

    … just over a century ago: the library revolution.In the late 18th and early 19th century, Just a quibble, but I read this and went “huuuh” — the first time span is ~ 1890-1910 (a century ago), and the second is ~ 1790-1810.

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  15. mfioretti

    David, and all readers,I have just started a research project for an italian University on the advantages of opening public sector information produced by local Public Administrations. The details of this project are at http://stop.zona-m.net/node/175I would really appreciate your help in spreading the word as much aspossible about this project, and especially about the requests forinformation and real world cases described in the “Call for help”section of the page above. (my email address is mfioretti, at nexaima . net)

    Reply
  16. WES

    … just over a century ago: the library revolution.In the late 18th and early 19th century, Just a quibble, but I read this and went “huuuh” — the first time span is ~ 1890-1910 (a century ago), and the second is ~ 1790-1810.

    Reply
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  36. Nate Hill

    David,
    Great article.
    Here at the Chattanooga Public Library we have just posted a job called the Open Data Specialist (ODS). For details about the posting check out http://chattlibrary.org/jobs/open-data-specialist-ods. In Chattanooga we are really excited about this model of the public library hosting the local open data portal as a digital collection. The ODS will be working in the library’s public maker/hackerspace in the middle of downtown Chattanooga. Should be awesome!

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