Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bringing data literacy to our decision makers

There's a wonderful article on eaves.ca about the importance of building a citizenry which is able to understand the flow of higher tech information which we are routinely deluged in. Entitled "Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data" the article states:
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.

In this day and age, those who are unable to understand information in its many electronic forms and draw meaning from them are, in my opinion, missing out on something marvellous, in the same way that those who can't read lose out on the joys of literature and poetry.

For our elected officials it is all the more important that they educate themselves. Consider Dennis Skinner MP, the worthless pile of flesh that he is, bawling and swearing in the House of Commons whilst the world leaves him behind. How narrow and sad his world must be that he is able to say, in all honesty, "I've never sent an email and I don't intend to start now."How can this man, in good concience, vote on many of the issues facing the modern world when he doesnt understand this basic form of communication. The tragedy of it is, that as his world becomes smaller, he doesnt realise how far the horizon now spreads.

Consider also the Digital Economy Bill, a travesty of law making, which serves to codify in law the distribution model of 20th century companies, rather than demanding they these companies embrace change and move forward. The provision for a Great Firewall smack of the same measures being taken in China to block citizen access to internet material seen as 'objectionable'.

The world must have become a terrifying place for decision makers. Control is slipping away and their rarified position is being eroded further by the work of a tiny number of data literate people who have committed themselves to exposing their secrets. The expenses scandal was an example of this, someone who understood the data and its implications, simply took a database and walked out with it.

The recent drama surrounding Wiki Leaks is another example, and has turned its founder into a wanted man. They recieve vast quantities of information, all of which is provided by individuals who understand data, how it is spread, how it can be moved, and how it can be shared. Small wonder that they have brought the American intelligence community to its knees of late, just at the thought they might have thousands of diplomatic cables from US embassies.

I might sound like an idealist, but there is something beautiful to me in a world where data is growing increasingly free. We are less likely than ever to be held hostage by privilaged information. Governments will have to accept this, or fall to those that do. It will destroy tyrants and give expose those who perform quiet miracles.

Educating people in these concepts will also help change the idea of what original content is, and who it is owned by. Hopefully people will understand in time that content, produced by an artist, and distributed for free, doesnt harm people, but exposes it to an audience of billions. Financial rewards will have to be rethought, but they won't go away, there will always be things to sell and items of worth.

Data is like water. It will always flow outwards, and choose the path of easiest movement. The digital world is creating a virtually frictionless environment. Some resevoirs are harder to access than others, some near impossible. But an increasing number of people are seeing this not as an impossible mountain to climb, but a challenge, and so the walls will keep being brought down.

We must find ways to educate people, to change the ways they see the world. But equally important is to educate our policy makers, who rant and rave about bringing order to the internet, not realising that doing so would eliminate the very thing which makes this medium great.

It may be that in time we lose our right to have secrets, but along the way we will understand that those secrets were not so grand and terrible after all. We will also have Governments who cannot lie to us, where spin is a pointless exercise because the truth will always come out, and who have to stand before the public they serve and act in the genuine public interest, rather than the interest they can sell to us.

I might be the only one, but I see something glorious in that.


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