The Open Government Partnership Summit, which this year is being held in the wonderful Mexico City, is a time for a whole range of organisations and governments from around the world to meet and discuss any number of issues around open government, transparency, accountability, service delivery and a whole morass of related issues. The first day of the summit is reserved for civil society organisations, so we at least get to enjoy one day before the world’s politicians descend upon the event and ruin it for everyone (no, just kidding). So having spent the day meeting old contacts and new ones, what have I learned?
Well, for one thing Mongolia has 21 provinces, although that’s probably not the most important thing I gained from today. One of the most interesting of today’s sessions concerned data literacy – what is it, how’s it done and how do we know that it’s done it? If I were summarising the session, those would be the three key questions. Let’s have a look at each in turn:
- What is data literacy? Based on research done by Open Knowledge Foundation’s School of Data programme (partly funded by Indigo), the session looked at how different people around the world understood data literacy and what they thought it meant. While different people naturally understand the term to mean different things, the views in the room coalesced around three key issues. Firstly, understanding the nature of the problem you are trying to solve is key. Data literacy does not start and end with hard technical skills, but is (or should be) much more comprehensive than that. Understanding the problem or issue and what data can and can’t do to help solve it is a crucial first step. Secondly, being able to interrogate and use that data confidently with your purpose in mind is very important. After all, without the ability to interrogate and manipulate the data, a key element of data literacy is lost. The third and final point, meanwhile, is around data use – crucial, but very often overlooked or sidelined by those overly focused on the hard technical skills of data literacy. Storytelling, promotion and awareness raising are vital if data literacy is to have any wider value or relevance.
- How to do it? As can be seen from the relatively broad definition of data literacy above, ‘doing’ data literacy is not some short-term fix. However, because of time and cost constraints, many data literacy initiatives and training are necessarily squeezed into a week or two. Very few initiatives last longer than a month and we must, therefore, look carefully at the value and role of such work to ensure it doesn’t just result in small, short-term gains before everything returns to normal. Moreover, many of these initiatives are developed and designed with individuals in mind – whether they are investigative journalists or data staff in an INGO. However, all of these individuals work within organisations and without a much wider focus on organisational data literacy there is a real danger that data literate approaches to work or problems are merely the preserve of the few and do not feed into the work of the wider organisation.
- Has it been successful and how do we know? As with almost any area of development work, there are inevitably questions around success, evaluation, contribution and attribution. And, as you might expect, easy answers are few and far between. To help clarify matters, it may be useful to think of the value of data literacy in and of itself, the value and contribution to change of data literacy initiatives and, finally, the impact that data-driven campaigning or advocacy may have upon the issue or problem being addressed. Often, there is a tendency to jump to this last issue and it is, unsurprisingly, the most difficult and nebulous to measure. Funders have a role to play in ensuring realistic expectations and being flexible and patient with regard to impact, while data organisations themselves must be honest with funders about what can and cannot be realistically achieved within the cost and timescale of any given project.
Tomorrow sees the first day of the main conference, so I’ll be back then.