March 17, 2018

Obtain, Build App, Publish | Peer to Peer Review

I recently attended a local “hackfest” sponsored by the government of the county in which I reside. This “App Challenge” was one of a series of events encouraging citizens to invent new ways to use the considerable open data resources of the county and to make those available to others. Alameda County has a large number of data sets that are open and available for citizens to use. Some of the more popular ones are the restaurant inspections (with one particularly unfortunate one entitled simply “Taco Bell“), the bed bug report, and, more happily, the certified green business list. In addition, there are a large number of county-specific subsets derived from federal data sources. This open data is a tremendous resource but underused because most people aren’t able to manipulate files of raw data.

The goal of the App Challenge was to see what apps, using any of these data sets, could be developed in the course of a day of collaborative work. Not being an app developer, I went along mainly out of a desire to spend a sunny Saturday indoors hunched over a computer with “my peeps”—that is, folks for whom access to information tops everything.

The meeting was held at the local high school, and, to my surprise, more than 60 people turned out, many from the far corners of the county and some from distances beyond. I was greatly heartened to see such a strong community interest in open government data. The group was notably diverse in age, race, gender, and presumably a number of other characteristics that weren’t immediately visible. There was one contingent, however, that was not in evidence: librarians. In fact, as we went around the room introducing ourselves briefly, the one other librarian, from a public library a significant distance away, introduced himself and said, “I’m glad to see I’m not the only librarian here.”

At the appfest

The App Challenge attracted a diverse audience but few librarians.

This is a sad statement about libraries and librarians. The meeting was held less than two blocks from a large public library, and in the general area there are numerous public and higher education libraries. Surely librarians are supporters of open government data, and, presumably, public libraries in the county would want to be able to assist people in using this data, or even work on finding new ways to present that data in a way that serves library users in their community. Then some thoughts began to fall together. I’ll begin with the FRBR user tasks.

I’ve complained frequently about the limitations of the four FRBR user tasks: find, identify, select, and obtain. In this article I will focus on my disappointment that the final user task is “obtain.”

That we ended with obtain in the era when libraries mainly had books and journals makes sense. We couldn’t read the book for the person or take notes for the person. Use of the material was entirely up to the user, and scholarship tended to be a solitary activity. But in today’s era, we have more than documents; we also have data and often data in computer-manipulable formats.

To help people use text, there are community literacy programs—libraries (and other institutions in the community, such as adult schools, homeless shelters, and jails) have programs to teach people to read. There are “homework help” programs in those same libraries. There are summer reading programs. Why shouldn’t we have data-use activities that teach users to ingest and make use of these highly valuable resources? Since libraries are providing Internet access to the public, they are in fact providing access to these open data sets, but the library commitment unfortunately ends with obtain.

There has been a fair amount of derision in library literature of what is seen as the “Maker space fad” in libraries. Yet it is undeniable that, in terms of library users, the scholar in the armchair with book in hand is being replaced by a group gathered around a table that is littered with devices in a space with a good, fast Internet connection. Our information world is no longer one of individual contemplation but has become collaborative and interactive. This is a world in which obtain is step one, where group work is the norm, and where the output of use is more likely to be a program or an image than it is a textual document. If your mental image of users is a tweedy scholar in an armchair with a book, you need to upgrade it to an image like this: a group of people with hands-on technology working together to make something.

That was point one. My second point has to do with who we are as librarians. One of the main reasons why libraries do not provide services around data sets is that many libraries lack the expertise to make use of these resources. We have not included data literacy in our skill set and don’t encourage it in our staff. Yet it would be perfectly reasonable for a patron to ask a reference question of the type: “What is the income distribution in different areas of my city?” and to expect to get an answer—not from a published book but from an available data set. There is also no reason why librarians should not either create apps or make use of appropriate applications in their work. Most offices would be quite unhappy with staff who could not do word processing or use spreadsheets, so why should libraries not want staff who can use the modern information tools? While not everyone needs to have every skill, a library that cannot do data management is missing some basic functionality.

David Lankes defines the mission of libraries as “to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” There is no question in my mind that knowledge creation today is, for the most part, a group activity that involves data and uses computers as tools. If we aren’t part of that conversation, we’re not fulfilling our mission.

Oh, and the winning app? This year, 2013, the winning app helps county residents locate green businesses on a map. Last year, however, the winner of the first app challenge was BookIT, an app that lets you search county library catalogs and place a hold, created by library users for library users.

Karen Coyle About Karen Coyle

Karen Coyle ( is a librarian with over thirty years of experience with library technology. She now consults in a variety of areas relating to digital libraries. As a consultant she works primarily on metadata development and technology planning. She is currently investigating the possibilities offered by the semantic web and linked data technology.

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