04 October 2012

Open Data Learning Summit

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at two different conferences in Vancouver held in celebration of Right to Know Week.  I previously shared some of my thoughts about the first conference and these are my thoughts about the second one which was the Open Data Information Summit held by the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for BC, the BC Libraries Cooperative and the BC Ministry of Education.

The day started with an engaging and inspiring talk by David Eaves (@daeaves).  David covers a lot of interesting topics in his talks but the one that stood out for me the most was his discussion about the political nature of data.  As more public data is made available to the public, decisions have to be made about what to release and what data to hold back.  Currently, those decisions are typically made one by one for each individual dataset, and there is a risk that those decisions might be made according to the interests of status or authority within an organization rather than on matters of principle.  What David pointed out though is that this political nature is not unique to open data.  It’s a property of data itself, whether or not it’s open, and it’s a challenge worth thinking about.

As I prepared my talk for this conference, I knew many of the participants would be professional librarians and archivists.  It occurred to me how important libraries and archives are to our societies, and how the challenges we face in the open data movement are the very same challenges that the proponents of the original library idea must have faced.  

I imagined the response that the first poor soul who came up with the idea must have faced.  “You know all these books we have?  I have this great idea.  Let’s build a great big building and take all of these books and make them available to the public, for free!”  

It’s easy to see why at the time this may have seemed like a crazy idea:

  • Most citizens can’t even read.
  • The vast majority of people don’t even care about books.
  • Who is going to pay for this?
  • Who is going to read these books?
  • They will interpret the books incorrectly.
  • If everyone learns how to read there will be chaos!
  • What if someone uses a book to do something evil?
  • How will authors make a living?
  • How will publishers make a living?
  • Who is going to pay for a book if we make them available for free?

Or, even after the library was formed:
  • We published those books a year ago... and still only a few people are reading!

As it turns out, we now recognize and value libraries and literacy and it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always like this.

The challenge of data literacy is one that came up again and again during the conference,  and is a challenge I think we would do well to more rigorously address as an important skill for the future, particularly for our kids.  

It's here that open data presents another valuable opportunity.  I have had the privilege of leading many open data hackathons attended by young people and I have seen how much fun they can have working with data when given the opportunity.  I think would be great to see courses offered in schools that address data literacy topics.  It also be great to see kids empowered to do school projects using open data about their own community or municipality or province.

I was reminded of the talk that Danny Hillis presented at OSCON 2012 in which he describes the contribution his school librarian made to his life when he was a 4th grader.   Librarians in general, but school librarians in particular, are perfectly poised to introduce kids to a wide variety of fields of learning that they may find interesting and useful but that perhaps aren’t yet offered by the school system generally.

And, while I am optimistic about the classroom and think teachers will increasingly find opportunities to weave data literacy into their work, much as happens with reading today, I think that librarians are well positioned today to kick start the process and to help our kids discover the fun and usefulness of data.  

By the end of the day the summit was buzzing with inspiration and excitement.  It was clear to me that the attendees saw the opportunities for learning and sharing that open data offers.  I look forward to working with librarians and educators and to seeing where they take it from here.