Anne Neville knows the value of open data. Neville, director of the California Research Bureau at the California State Library, has spent the last six years directing the State Broadband Initiative at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Washington, DC. She’s passionate about digital equity, and supporting the critical work public libraries do to make information accessible to communities.
She also recognizes the importance of access to open data from a personal perspective. In 2015, as Neville sought an assisted living community for her mother, she found that marketing was plentiful, but objective facts were difficult to uncover. Fortunately, the state had recently released key quality data about assisted living facilities. Neville used this information to determine how many citations the organizations had been given as well as the severity. Armed with this information, Neville then inquired as to how facilities planned to address these citations.
“Having access to this data gave me information I wouldn’t otherwise have had,” Neville explained. “It allowed me to pick a better place for my mom to live.”
This, she said, is why having access to open data is important for the public. She believes digital equity can equip people to make better, more informed decisions. Now, Neville, along with partners, Will Saunders, the “Open Data Guy” for the state of Washington, and Daphne Deleon, the Nevada State Librarian, are one step closer to ensuring digital equity for all. Their project, Data Equity for Main Street: Bringing Open Data Home Through Local Libraries (DEMS), is one of 17 winners of the 2016 Knight News Challenge to accelerate media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information.
The challenge generated 1,065 applications, the largest number the Knight Foundation has received for any themed News Challenge. The 17 winners are a mix of small nonprofit startups, collaborations, and larger institutions. Eight winners will build out full versions of their projects with awards ranging from $237,589 to $470,000. Nine others will be supported through the Knight Prototype Fund, receiving $35,000 each to test assumptions and build demos over the next six months. DEMS, created by California State Library, Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records, and State of Washington Technology Solutions, received $470,000 to promote data literacy by training librarians and community members to find, use, and give advice on the power of open data.
The Knight Foundation in January announced a second News Challenge on Libraries, which will launch on February 24.
Data for the people
Governments, nonprofits, and other organizations are making lots of data available, usually on websites with easy-to-use visualization or statistical tools. This data is used primarily by technologically savvy people who know where it is and how to use it.
“We want to change that dynamic by bringing this data to more people,” Neville explained. “Libraries are the natural place for this because most libraries already offer technology training, and librarians are information professionals.”
The project revolves around the idea of digital equity, or equal access to technology tools, along with the knowledge and skills to use them. To that end, the DEMS project will work with librarians and civic technologists to build a curriculum, while Train-the-Trainer tools will equip librarians to find, use, and give feedback on open data. Librarians can then use the community training curriculum to pass that knowledge on to community members and organizations.
“As the open data movement matures,” the DEMS proposal reads, “it is critical that we do not create greater digital inequities by assuming that everyone and every organization will have the same time, skills, and resources to invest in learning how to find and use this data.”
The proposal goes on to point out that public librarians are the only group of information science professionals consistently embedded in urban and rural, large and small communities throughout the country, and that the public views libraries as trusted institutions that can integrate open data training and knowledge.
“Data Equity is a new take on erasing the digital divide,” explained DEMS project lead Saunders, who works for the office of the Washington State CIO. “Sophisticated organizations with tech-savvy staff and resources tend to concentrate in big urban areas. We wanted to figure out how to reach a broader range of communities. Data systems don’t care where you are located, and the skills to use open data effectively are within reach for a wide variety of learners.”
Neville’s assisted living scenario is just one example of how access to open data can make a difference to those learners. A Nevada interfaith nonprofit grassroots group, Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN), uses national, state, and local open data to develop recommendations to policy makers for improving education and creating jobs. The Education Task Force has successfully researched, advocated, and supported the implementation of Parent-Teacher Home Visits in the Washoe County, Reno, NV School District. The Health Care Jobs for the Future Task Force used open data to identify living-wage health care positions needed in Nevada and for which no training programs existed. The Task Force was successful in advocating for the implementation of new health care certificate programs in community colleges in both Reno and Carson City.
Chris Barr is the Knight Foundation’s Director of Media Innovation. He said what piqued the foundation’s interest in the DEMS project is that it’s all about rallying libraries around the open data movement, about guiding communities into this new space to work together.
“I think they have a great plan,” Barr said. “You have three states coming together that are represented by their librarians who will help ensure the program is spread throughout their states as much as possible.”
Barr said that the other appealing aspect of the project is the Teach-the-Teacher component, which will equip librarians to be on the front lines of data equity education within their communities. DEMS states it “will provide the opportunity for local libraries to become a key part of the open data feedback loop, increasing the diversity and relevancy of the types and formats of information that publishers release…to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to take advantage of open data,” and to “build a program that is replicable, scalable and impactful” in all communities.
“We think of [the library] as as one of the last physical places to interact with information,” Barr said, “so that makes it a wonderful place for local people to get local information where you will have experts in-house versed in open data.”
Well positioned to help
Daphne Deleon is interested in leveraging public libraries’ positions to realize the mission of the open data movement and strengthen public policy by providing an on-ramp for citizens to participate and provide significant input in the decisions that shape their communities and their lives. She explains how the Teach-the-Teacher curriculum will be based on a set of core teaching modules identified and developed by the curriculum team of public librarians and civic technologists. Deleon says a preliminary list of modules will include: understanding open data; national and state sources for datasets (education, population, crime, economic development, etc.); identifying what datasets patrons are requesting; identifying community-specific datasets; raising awareness of open data and its uses; and partnering with nonprofits and local government.
Completion of DEMS will begin by bringing librarians and civic technologists together during early 2016 to develop initial tools for a trial field run within a year. The feedback from this pilot will improve the tools and then bring them out again to larger communities through a second competitive grant program. Responses from this audience will be used to improve the tools again in anticipation of a third grant round that will rely on the final materials.
“The Knight News Challenge award will allow us to implement our open data project on a larger scale than we thought possible,” Deleon said. “The diversity of communities in California, Nevada, and Washington will provide a test environment to create a flexible open data curriculum that can be used in public libraries across the nation.”
Extending beyond the project period, the project leads see the resulting community of practice as a mechanism for public librarians, civic technologists, policy makers, and citizens to continue the evolution of open data tools and their uses through discussion and sharing.
“They say the best way to learn a subject is to teach it,” Saunders said. “We’re passionate about educating new communities of users for open data because we also expect to learn as we teach. Open data champions and a smallish community of civic technologists have helped to pump data from government into the public domain, but it’s often hard to know who’s using the data and how it connects with the real needs and interests of communities.”