Guest posting by Jacqueline van Dyk
Recently, I attended a talk given by British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. Interestingly, Denham holds a masters degree in archival studies. She is not a lawyer, yet has made significant contributions to data protection and has been an influential advocate for online privacy protection.
Denham spoke about her role and initiatives around open data and open information. With a passionate belief in the value of providing access to information, she spoke about the potential for data to improve conditions in society. Rich, complex data is key to discovering new variables and solutions to problems that we, as a society, face.
Data collection and analysis has long been the work of governments, research institutes, corporations and other entities. The open data and open information movement has been fuelled by citizen demand and accelerated expectations of government accountability. As Denham reminded us, the most significant voice here is that of citizens. Their demands for openness and transparency have driven the resources and sparked the open movement.
As Denham’s career demonstrates, open information and open data hold obvious alignment for librarians and other information management professionals, such as records managers and archivists. Libraries are philosophically aligned with basic principles of open access, free access to publicly paid-for information, and connecting people with the information they need to live as an informed citizenry.
Following her presentation, we discussed the fact that no professional group has taken a leadership role in open data. Governments issue data sets. Corporations, research institutions, think tanks and independent computer programmers/coders have the capacity to analyze and manipulate the data to suit their business needs, research or whims. But what about the individual citizen, the non-profit groups, community groups and smaller institutions who have problems to solve, unmet information needs, and curiosities and bright ideas to pursue? Who will educate them about the power of open data and the information it can provide and how that can be used to improve their lives? For those without access to researchers and technology capacity, who will facilitate the connections among people, data and technology? Who is there to curate the myriad datasets and deluge of data available?
For libraries to stay relevant, and indeed thrive, in this global information economy, we need to think a little broader about our role in society. Innovation and transformation is essential, yet daunting. It seems to me that at least part of the answer lies in identifying new leadership areas. Libraries are naturally interested in the relationship among people, information and technology. Librarians have an opportunity to be seen as the professional leaders of the open data movement – the folks who can help citizens make meaning of this wealth of information.
But first, what is open data?
Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The goals of the open data movement are similar to those of other “Open” movements such as open source, open content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established, but the term “open data” itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web and, especially, with the launch of open-data government initiatives such as Data.gov.
To bring open data to life, here are a few examples.
Hans Rosling of Gapminder is a global leader in using publicly accessible data to reveal fact-based information about our world through compelling visualizations. When you have an hour available, take a look at this video: The Joy of Stats. I promise you this video is not boring; Hans Rosling makes statistics both sexy and entertaining! To give us a sense of the enormity of available data and the challenges of information management, the video includes visualizations that help us understand the progressive information revolutions of the past couple of hundred years, culminating in today’s data deluge.
And while Rosling focuses on statistical data, a lot of interesting analysis is being applied to text-based data. Jer Thorp is Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times. He has created fascinating data visualizations – art pieces, really – using data from text-based sources, such as New York Times newspaper content which was released as open data. The Times has published over 10,000 subject headings as linked open data under a Creative Commons license. Take a look at Jer Thorp’s work.
Where are the voices of librarians and archivists in this movement? How do we facilitate the capacity of citizens to make meaning of this data, to stay informed, to analyze the information they need to inform their decision-making and make change in their communities?
It seems to me that post-secondary institutions – and increasingly this role is facilitated by their libraries – naturally have expertise and experience in analyzing and curating data, developing software and visualizations, conducting research and storing/retrieving data for the research community. Public libraries have a role that is closer to the community, the “regular folks”, and supporting that democratic public sphere.
What does library leadership in open data look like?
The first step could be as guides to finding the data that is available. Interested in health or socio-economic issues for your community? Curate some websites, datasets and connections with researchers who are also interested in the same issues.
Secondly, libraries can make their own data available in an open format – leading by example. By providing data sets of collection and use data, who knows what clever apps and creative visualizations may be developed? At the very least, the release of such data sets will not only model transparency/accountability but will draw attention to the wealth of resources and usage volume of library collections! (Privacy concerns are addressed through “data scrubbing” and “anonymizing”.)
Public libraries view themselves as the creation space, the community gathering space, the place to go to meet information needs. There is a unique and critical community development role that is needed here. Public libraries can be the champions of an open data culture. They can provide programming to support open data literacy. They can facilitate the linking together of people, information and technology. This fits in with the existing roles of supporting learning, connecting people with information and developing communities.
Other ideas for how libraries can lead in nurturing the capacity for individual participation in the open data world?
Jacqueline van Dyk is Director of Libraries and Literacy for the British Columbia Ministry of Education, providing leadership for public libraries in the province. She can be reached at Jacqueline.vanDyk@gov.bc.ca.