iSchool team demystifies huge troves of government data

By Mary Lynn Lyke Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Governments are giving away mountains of data for free. Log in to the City of Seattle open data portal and you’ll find crime statistics sorted by police precinct, biennial budgets, building permit maps, city Twitter account statistics. You can see the average hourly wages for men and women sorted by age range, locations of city-owned bicycle racks, even a list of Seattle pet licenses, with the animal’s species, name, breed, and the owner’s ZIP code.

And it’s not just tech-savvy Seattle opening its data troves for the public. Across the world, governmental organizations are scrambling to release the reams of information they generate as open data – data made machine-readable, freely available and shareable. The aim is transparency, efficiency and civic engagement. But UW iSchool leaders see bumps along the open-data roadway.  

One is the quality and accessibility of gathered data. Are datasets accurate as presented? Are they complete? Are they usable to the public? And are people even aware of this important resource? “The public may not know about open data and may not have the abilities to actually use it, interpret it, or know where to find it,” says Professor Carole Palmer, the iSchool’s associate dean for research.

Palmer and iSchool Assistant Professor Nic Weber are co-directors of a pioneering program that addresses some of these difficult issues. The program expands the open-data expertise of iSchool students through new and revised curriculum and sends them out into the real world to work with public libraries and government agencies as “open data advocates.”

“I don’t know of any other school at this point that has invested in this. We’re educating a new generation of iSchool students to become the leaders in this field.”

— Carole Palmer, iSchool professor and associate dean for research

It’s a groundbreaking program in a still emerging area for iSchool research and teaching. “I don’t know of any other school at this point that has invested in this,” says Palmer, the iSchool’s Associate Dean for Research. “We’re educating a new generation of iSchool students to become the leaders in this field.”

The program is called the Open Data Literacy (ODL) project. Literacy in this context means mastering skills such as reading graphs and charts, being able to evaluate the quality of datasets and draw accurate conclusions from them, and knowing how to sniff out misleading information. For the experts developing datasets, literacy requires the sophisticated skills needed to clean up and curate data so that information is reliable, accessible, and easily understood by diverse public audiences.

“We want to find ways to lower the barrier to entry for all people who want to engage with open data,” says Weber, an expert in data curation. He and Palmer share with their students a passion for equality in data use.  “As a citizen taking part in a representative democracy, one of our inalienable rights is accessing information collected about us and about our government,” says Weber. “Obtaining the skills that will help you make use of that information is a basic civil competency.”

The collaborative Open Data Literacy project is supported by a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, recently extended into a fourth year. In addition to education and research, the project this year will focus on community outreach, with webinars and workshops for both the public and the librarians who, once trained, will teach their communities open data skills. “Ultimately, we’d like to see open data experts in our libraries who can teach courses for the public, publish data, and consult with other city entities as those entities prepare to publish data,” says Weber.

To date, eight iSchool graduate students have served as paid ODL interns, helping partners in libraries and public sector agencies such as the City of Seattle, the Washington State Library, and the state Department of Transportation. Working with nonprofits is a major draw for students, says project manager Bree Norlander, who helps recruit interns. “Our students are really interested in working in places where their work will make a difference. They’re particularly interested in civics and government and the idea of providing data openly. That’s what we look for in our interns. We want them to have a drive for that.”

Partners are impressed. Wilford Saunders, who calls himself the “open data guy” for Washington state, compares the interns to “can openers” discovering sealed-away resources.  “These students look at things differently, they ask insightful questions, and they come to us with top-flight skills,” says Saunders, who helped Open Data Literacy program managers identify potential projects for the eight-week internships.

Project interns do everything from tackling messy data collected in uncoordinated ways to creating compelling visualizations – maps, graphs, plots – that make information easier to access. One student, Sarah Carrier, worked with the Seattle Public Library on developing workshops and curriculum designed to educate librarians and prepare them to work with the public on open data. Other interns analyzed trends in public disclosure requests and studied whether proactive release of open data can reduce the often overwhelming number of such requests.

At the Washington State Office of the Chief Information Officer, M. Wynn Tranfield worked to consolidate the state’s three main geoportals into one. Multiple portals are “expensive, inefficient, and confusing” for new users, she stated.  

"When a library is able to take on that role of an advisor to city government to get more and better data out to the public, then it’s a win for everyone."

— Kathleen Sullivan, MLIS graduate working with the Washington State Library

Interns were also in the field scanning open data use and expertise in libraries and government agencies. Recent Master of Library and Information Science graduate Kathleen Sullivan queried the state’s 39 counties and the largest city in each county on open data use. While two-thirds of the counties and eight cities published some kind of open data, most of it was Geographic Information System maps of boundaries and landmarks. These maps don’t draw people in the way data on 911 calls or property values do, she points out. “People want to know about crime, property, business, traffic incidents, and also government transparency: How is the government operating with the budget and what is it spending on?”

Working with the Washington State Library, Sullivan also examined open data activity in almost two-dozen libraries. Less than half were offering open data instruction for the staff or public, and almost all of those were participating in a special pilot program called Data Equity for Main Street. But enthusiasm for embracing open data was high. Sullivan was pleasantly surprised to find that more than half the libraries were interested in working hand-in-hand with local government agencies in selecting open data and ensuring it was properly documented and presented.

“When a library is able to take on that role of an advisor to city government to get more and better data out to the public, then it’s a win for everyone,” says Sullivan, who points out that opening data is a culture change for many institutions, and not always a comfortable one. “People can feel exposed and get anxious about how the public will use the information – what they will think, how they will interpret it.” Working with libraries can ease concerns and get data out the door and into the sunshine, she says.

Washington State Librarian Cindy Aden worked closely with Sullivan. “She was a great fit for us,” she says. “She opened the door.”

Aden sees open data as both a new direction for libraries and a traditional one. “Open data is a place where libraries can really make a difference and it’s also a place where libraries have always been. We’ve always been the one to teach people how to use resources. This is just an extension of our skillset.”

Her office is offering Sullivan a new six-and-a-half-month open data consultant position to further her research and create a roadmap going forward. “We liked the work she performed and wanted to begin implementing some of the recommended open data activities. We wished for more of her time than the summer internship could provide,” says Evelyn Lindberg, Data Coordinator for the state library.

Jobs in open data work are still rare, but may become more common as the need for them continues to grow. Says Bree Norlander: “What I found out talking to the interns is that their help is usually desperately needed where they are. But, unfortunately, organizations don’t usually have full-time positions doing this kind of work. It’s a desperately needed skill and position for places that are gathering data.”

“And right now,” adds Norlander, “everyone is gathering data.”

Pictured at top: From left, Open Data Literacy project manager Bree Norlander, research assistant Kaitlin Throgmorton, Professor Carole Palmer and Assistant Professor Nic Weber.