Yesterday, I tweeted a quick thought that I had, while walking the dog:
A few people asked me to expand on this, so let’s give it a try:
We are facing a very different data-related problem today than we were facing only a few years ago. Back then, the call was solely for more information. Since then, corporations and governments have started to answer this call and the result has been a flood of data of all shapes and sizes. While it’s important to remain on track with the goal of making data available, we are now faced with a parallel and perhaps more perplexing problem: What do we do with it all?
Of course, an industry has developed around all of this data; start-ups around the world are coming up with new ideas and data-related products every day. At the same time, open-sourcers are releasing helpful tools and clever apps by the dozen. Still, in a large part these groups are looking at the data with fiscal utility in mind. It seems to me that if we are going to make the most of this information resource, it’s important to bring more people in on the game – and to do that requires education.
At the post-secondary level, efforts should be made to educate academics for whom this new pile of data could be useful: journalists, social scientists, historians, contemporary artists, archivists, etc. I could imagine cross-disciplinary workshops teaching the basics:
- A survey of what kind of data is available, and how to find it.
- A brief overview of common data formats (CSV, JSON, XML, etc).
- An introduction to user-friendly exploration tools like ManyEyes & Tableau
- A primer in Processing and how it can be used to quickly prototype and build specialized visualization tools.
The last step seems particularly important to me, as it encourages people to think about new ways to engage with information. In many cases, datasets that are becoming available are novel in their content, structure, and complexity – encouraging innovation in an academic framework is essential. Yes, we do need to teach people how to make bar graphs and scatter charts; but let’s also facilitate exploration and experimentation.
Why workshops? While this type of teaching could certainly be done through tutorials, or with a well-written text book, it’s my experience that teaching these subjects is much more effective one-on-one. This is particularly true for students who come at data from a non-scientific perspective (and these people are the ones that we need the most).
The long-term goal of such an initiative would be to increase data-literacy. In a perfect world, this would occur even earlier – at the highschool level. Here’s where I put on my utopian hat: teaching data literacy to young people would mean that they could find answers to their own questions, rather than waiting for the media to answer those questions for them. It also teaches them, in a practical way, about transparency and accountability in government. The education system is already producing a generation of bloggers and citizen journalists – let’s make sure they have the skills they need to be dangerous. Veering a bit to the right, these are hugely valuable skills for workers in an ‘idea economy’ – a nation with a data-literate workforce is a force to be reckoned with.
Ideally this educational component would be build in to government projects like data.gov or data.hmg.gov.uk (are you listening, Canada?). More than that, it would be woven into the education mandate of governments at federal and local levels. Of course, I’m not holding my breath.
Instead, I’ve started to plan a bit of a project for the summer. Like last year, I taught a series of workshops at my studio in Vancouver, which were open to people of all skill levels. This year, I’m going to extend my reach a bit and offer a couple of free, online presentations covering some of the things that I’ve talked about in this post. One of these workshops will be specifically targeted to youth. At the same time, I’ll be publishing course outlines and sample materials for my sessions so that others can host similar events.
Stay tuned for details – and if you have any questions or would like to lend a hand, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.