Fulfilling the Promise of Open Data through Data Literacy Training

Aug 1, 2017   |   Elizabeth Monk, University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research and Eleanor Tutt, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs.  Below is one of these experiences. Other posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the DetroitOakland, and Seattle partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Working together, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC) and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) have discovered that providing data and technology training to Pittsburgh-area residents advances our common interests in supporting resident learning, informed decision making, and community engagement. Our two organizations have complementary missions. WPRDC maintains Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh’s open data portal, provides services to help with publishing and using data, and organizes events to connect publishers and users. CLP launched a major initiative last year focusing on open data, data literacy, and the ways that data might inform sound decision making.

Motivators for the Training

When participants at a 2016 WPRDC User Group meeting asked for more support around using data on the website, the opportunity to partner on data and technology training became clear. Together we designed Data 101 — an introductory series of workshops designed to increase data literacy regardless of past experience.

Hosting Data 101 was an ideal opportunity for the library to reinforce core data concepts and help residents overcome the barriers to using open data. Open data only becomes public data when other critical elements are in place, such as equitable access to technology, opportunities for learning, and community relationships. Public libraries are well positioned to connect people to these pieces that are often missing.

How Training Has Impacted Participants’ Community Work

Data 101 participants came from a variety of organizations, including city and county government staff, foundation program officers, non-profit staff, students and library system staff.  The CLP lead for Digitization and Special Projects was one of ten Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh participants. She attended to learn more about how data could intersect with her life, both personally and professionally. “I am a visual learner and [as a result of attending Data 101] I’ve found myself actually creating data visualizations to better understand data I’ve either accumulated or been given. The best thing I took away from the series is identifying what data is and how it can tell a story.”

The non-profit staff were often looking for support in grant writing, service outreach, and program evaluation. One grant writer from a local community center first came to the training at the request of her organization’s CEO. She found herself dealing with data often — presenting them to managers, directors and funders — but wasn’t confident about her technical skills. She attended all 4 of the workshops in the initial series and learned to think about how to present and explain data in new ways. Because of the trainings, she has used her new skills to help her organization focus their efforts geographically by identifying municipalities with lower income and higher unemployment rates and also which of their partner agencies served those areas. This helped her organization target career development services where it was needed most.

“I liked that the series encouraged everyone to think about the concepts of visualizing data, before learning about the tools that are available. These activities also gave us opportunities to work with others and share ideas, rather than just working separately on laptops. As a result, I learned how others use data in their jobs, from those who work directly with clients, and record data points, to those looking at the big picture with data to make programming decisions.”

New Toolkit to Share Lessons and Empower More Libraries to Train

We keep trying new things and learning along the way. We discovered quickly that it is better to teach concepts separately from tools. We have taught concepts with paper-based activities so we can democratize the workshop, allowing all participants to participate equally regardless of their technical skills. Using paper also allows participants to work together more easily, making our workshops highly collaborative. While the series was designed for people starting at the very beginning, more advanced users also found the interactive format appealing and learned something new.

We will be finalizing a Toolkit for Public Librarians later this summer — which will offer a variety of training activities that public librarians can use in their own work around data literacy. We tested an early version of the toolkit at a National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) meeting to get feedback from other practitioners who may want to facilitate similar trainings in their communities. The NNIP network and its training catalog help nurture, develop, and propagate structures and trainings — such as Data 101 — that ultimately help ensure data are used in service of communities. We encourage all organizations, especially public libraries and open data providers, to consider providing local data and technology training and joining us in this cause.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Monk (Liz) is a Research Specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research where she manages the Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles and contributes to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. Liz also contributes to University research reports and community outreach.  

Eleanor Tutt is the open data and knowledge manager at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. By opening library data, connecting library measures to community impacts, and supporting residents as they build their skills and confidence using data in the civic realm, she hopes to contribute to a more equitable and accessible open data space. Eleanor joined the public library world after serving as a data analyst and mapmaker for a regional community development nonprofit in St. Louis.

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