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State Libraries Push for Data Literacy

California’s libraries are working to close the digital divide and increase digital and data literacy. One way the libraries are doing that is by training librarians to train community members.

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48 percent of adults visit the library, and 47 percent said libraries are trustworthy places to learn new tech, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

“We started thinking that libraries could provide a natural bridge between the data all of you (state workers) make possible and community members who might want to be able to use it,” said Anne Neville-Bonilla, director of California Research Bureau, a group of researchers under the California State Library. She spoke Friday at a spring meeting of state employees interested in networking and best practices for data use, CalData. “The result of this could be greater equity within our communities.”

The bureau wanted to “provide learning opportunities as we’re putting the data out there,” not after the open-data movement had matured, Neville said. The program is based on a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to provide data training to communities.

“They think of themselves, the library, as an information management center that also provides training and access to the public,” Neville-Bonilla said.

Librarians framed the project one of two ways: Look at the data and decide for yourself, or look at the data and then get involved.

“There’s this issue out there of whether you believe government data is correct or if you totally mistrust it. It’s this opportunity to go and look at the source,” Neville said.

The bureau worked with the California State Library and Washington state Senior Program Manager of Open Data Wilford Saunders to compare notes, because “the way that our various cities and state agencies have come to data publishing is very different,” Neville-Bonilla said.

Neville-Bonilla also said libraries are better suited for metadata analysis and teaching as well as posing questions about proper data use and privacy.

While open-data sites exist, like California’s open data portal, a major barrier to using the data is that people don’t know about it.

“We’re learning that communities are interested. How interested, we still don’t know,” Neville-Bonilla said.

Another barrier is that not all data publishers want to answer questions.

To solve that, the bureau built a curriculum so that residents can take the skills home and interact with data. There were five libraries involved in the alpha testing. The data-driven questions used to teach and all the project information sit on a Basecamp site and Google docs.

The program is beta testing with 26 participating groups.

San Jose was an alpha testing participant and included trainees from the library and city staff. After the alpha testing phase, San Jose’s library became part of the city’s data team. The program hopes to expand to university libraries. Until then, the program focuses on getting local and state jurisdictions to publish data residents can use.

"Our program is based on iteration, and the library would love to be part of that testing," Neville-Bonilla said.

Kayla Nick-Kearney was a staff writer for Techwire from March 2017 through January 2019.