In a short amount of time, open data has gone from an abstract idea to an increasingly common practice that government entities throughout the country and the world seek to achieve. One problem that keeps coming up is usability. It’s great that data is liberated and accessible online, but what are you going to do with all of that data if you don’t know where to start in the first place? Most of us are not data scientists, but the information contained within these datasets is just as important to us and is something that we’d like to interact with as well.
This point has not been lost on data providers, which is why we were very happy to see the Commerce Department launch the Commerce Data Usability Project (CDUP). This project is designed to give nonexperts a start in open data by providing tutorials on the necessary “context and code” to truly engage with data released by the Commerce Department.
This project hits directly on the issue of digital literacy and open data. In an age where a basic understanding of technology is imperative for the future success of an individual, far too many lack the skills to engage in technology usefully. Particularly with something that is advanced like open data. That is why a project like CDUP shows how this problem can be solved and is a positive step in providing the public with the skills to harness open data.
Data education is part of this and is an issue that doesn’t get enough attention. Jeff Chen, the first chief data scientist of the Commerce Department, agrees, saying in this Federal Times article: “The area of data education has not received as much attention as it should. It is at the heart of the open data process — moving from just releasing data to encouraging open knowledge.”
We wholeheartedly agree. The great goal of open data is making our populations more knowledgeable via direct access to information so that we can be better and more engaged. It provides the impetus for innovation to happen.
Open data was not meant to be limited by its nature, yet the gap in know-how does that by default. For open data and government transparency to really be transformative, data education and data usability need to be areas of focus.
Data providers like the Commerce Department play an integral role in overcoming the challenges associated with digital literacy. As data providers release more information we would like educational tools be built into programs and releases. Online tutorials like the ones provided by CDUP and investments in community relations where the release is accompanied with simple a demonstration on how to use the tools will go a long way. Tools and courses like CitySDK and School of Data have already begun to educate people about basic data skills. We hope that more government entities continue to take the lead of the Commerce Department in integrating education with their releases.