Libraries and Open Data: Lessons from the Cartagena Data Festival

In April, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel about citizen engagement and accountability at the 2015 Cartagena Data Festival. This article is based on the topics discussed at the event.

The data revolution — and the open data trend in general — reflect a cultural change towards a more open society. Data are expected to be crucial for measuring and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The widespread availability of data will also help encourage global consensus and partnership building, foster the inclusion of open data into international funding agreements, and influence public policy.

But maybe we are expecting too much of the data revolution. Despite the promise of data, significant unanswered questions remain: how can we promote accountability and citizen engagement around data? How does data interact with political will? How do we balance global and local data? And how do we balance the supply and demand of data?

At the Cartagena Data Festival, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel about citizen engagement and accountability. I highlighted the importance of including civil society and grassroots organizations in these conversations — especially those doing on-the ground work with people who should be the final beneficiaries of this data revolution. We need to foster user adoption so people can use this data and information. Without this essential step, they will instead be sources of data — subjects of analysis at development organizations and governments.

Why libraries should be part of this conversation

By providing people around the world with the skills to access data and information, public libraries can play a key role in the data revolution. There are approximately 230,000 libraries worldwide, with more than 20,000 in Latin America alone. For centuries, libraries have served as knowledge hubs. In the increasingly technology-driven world, libraries have the staff, community positioning, and physical space to promote digital literacy training.

Some in the developed world and in development organizations mistakenly believe that the challenges of information access and digital illiteracy are things of the past. But many people in developing communities have never had the opportunity to learn how to use a computer, the internet or other types of technology. Governments around the world are promoting digital agendas and signing Open Government Partnership agreements, but few stop to consider if their citizens will have the knowledge and skills to access the newly available information. Public libraries can bridge this competency gap by helping their users develop the digital literacy skills they need to participate in the data revolution.

The data revolution cannot improve lives without users. As Kate Higgins from CIVICUS reminded us at the Cartagena Data Festival, data is not a magic bullet. It is people — not data — that change the world. Developing communities must have the digital literacy skills to take advantage of the information economy. And this is where public libraries can make a difference.

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