Working to Create Data Literate Citizenry

Every day, we make decisions based on data. If selected for a trial, jurors would hear testimony from expert witnesses before deciding guilt or innocence. Parents choose medical treatments for their children based on scientific research. Democracy relies on engaged citizens who base their decisions on information drawn from an array of sources. In these situations and many others, we are called upon to make potentially life-altering decisions on the basis of data, but just how much do we really understand?

The ability to find, interpret, and question the reliability of influential information is a necessity. This information increasingly takes the form of numerical data from high-level research, and effectively making use of this information can be a challenge. The term “data literacy” is used to refer to the ability to discover, analyze, and apply this kind of information, and awareness of the need to further develop data literacy is gaining momentum in the research world and in the information professions.

GSLIS Professor Michael B. Twidale, Associate Professor Catherine Blake, and Research Associate Professor Jon Gant are among those who have recognized the need to cultivate a data literate citizenry. They outlined the rationale in their paper, “Towards a Data Literate Citizenry,” which was first presented at the 2013 iConference.

The data literate citizen

Twidale, Blake, and Gant envision the data literate citizen as a person who thinks critically about data encountered in daily life and is comfortable with questioning sources and accuracy rather than feeling intimidated. This person would not simply accept outright the conclusions that others, such as politicians or journalists, may draw from data, but would instead conduct their own analysis and in the case of citizen science, contribute their own data. As stated in their paper, the authors envision “a sociotechnical ecology where data, information, people, and technology co-evolve.”

Having established the situation and goals in their first paper on the topic, they are now approaching the issue as a research question. “It’s a huge problem,” Twidale said. “The challenge is, how are we going to do it? How are we going to design better experiences to get towards this goal?”

The authors argue that information schools are well prepared to accomplish this goal. Due to their multidisciplinary nature and mission to bring together people, information, and technology, iSchools are positioned to produce experts who can lead this movement.

The role of information professionals, who have historically acted as intermediaries in guiding untrained citizens in interpreting traditional forms of information, is developing to include teaching data literacy skills. As professionals, they can assist colleagues and the public in interpreting and questioning data and by raising awareness of literacy issues. GSLIS graduates are well prepared for these roles, as coursework for many students now includes study of data literacy. In fact, research in data literacy falls at the  intersection  of  three GSLIS specializations: theSpecialization in Socio-technical Data Analytics, the Specialization in Data Curation, and theCertificate in Community Informatics.

Growing data literacy

With digital literacy and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) still a major hurdle in the U.S. and around the world, tackling the next challenge may seem daunting, but Twidale, Blake, and Gant have suggested several ways to start growing data literacy now. To those who need data literacy skills most urgently, such as judges and lawyers, journalists, data curators, and individuals in decision-making roles, specialized training is an immediate solution. For example, in 2013 the University of Illinois’s Institute for Genomic Biology offered a “Genomics for Judges” workshop that gave judges a crash course in the science of DNA and examined legal questions related to the use of DNA evidence in court.

Another way is for those with higher levels of data literacy to act as intermediaries. Intermediaries teach new skills and find ways to make data less intimidating, such as through the use of visualizations. The development of data journalism and the increasing prevalence of graphical representations of information in the news evince that information sharing is already moving toward a more data rich, but also more approachable, form.

Changes in the environments of data production and consumption are spurring the need to cultivate data literacy. Results of scientific research are becoming more accessible to the average person as technologies advance. Publicly and federally funded initiatives to increase transparency have led to increased availability of open data. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, expect investigators to make available to other researchers the data collected while working with their support.

Local and state governments are also working to share more data online, with the ultimate goal of increasing public engagement. However, the information that is made available often sees little use, says Gant, likely because the public lacks the skills to access, understand, or apply the information. As another limitation, Blake points to poor data organization choices by data providers. However, Gant believes the spread of ICTs, such as broadband Internet and devices used to access the World Wide Web, are making possible a new level of citizen-government interaction, allowing individuals to become active consumers and users of information.

Under Gant’s direction, the Center for Digital Inclusion has worked to increase access to ICTs and to make improvements in digital literacy and the capability to access digital resources. Gant sees data literacy as a logical progression to digital literacy and an integral component for any organization seeking to incubate engagement based on data. “Digital literacy delivers the data, and data literacy is the next step,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable enough to download and start analyzing the data.”

Just as data accessibility is increasing, the spread of ICTs and the increasing availability of analysis and visualization tools are making it easier than ever for people to actively engage with data. Free tools such as Many Eyes, which allows anyone to share data sets, create visualizations, analyze findings, and discuss discoveries, empower users to interact directly with data.

This kind of participation is what Twidale, Blake, and Gant hope to see more of. “Encountering data is just the start,” said Blake. “We want to empower people to interact and engage with data throughout the information lifecycle. Data plays a central role in many of our personal and community decisions surrounding our health, education, and the environment. When people begin to collect and analyze data for themselves, we believe that a higher quality of life will be the result. The average citizen can engage with the grand challenges of the twenty-first century.”

This article was originally published on the GSLIS homepage and featured in the “Intersections”, the GSLIS magazine. 

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