Are You Data Literate?
Data literacy is the ability to read and analyze data as an effective means of communication. It is a skill that can be used to assess the large-scale data of corporations or to read a graph comparing a country’s health and education statistics. Data is used across every discipline and every line of work, yet many people don’t know how to use or read it. Failure to interpret data correctly can lead policy makers or business executives to overreact or underreact to situations represented by data. These mistakes can be costly and may divert funds from areas where they are direly needed to areas where they are less essential. An important component of data literacy includes considering how data is collected, who collects it, and how it is made available to the public. When overlooking these factors, an interpreter might only consider the data directly in front of him/her instead of the underlying information behind each data point.
On August 29, 2014 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for the creation of data tools that would reinforce national and global statistical transparency and efficacy. As a part of this initiative the Secretary-General appointed an independent expert advisory group to lead the UN on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. Among measures addressing data innovation and the data landscape, part of this initiative focuses on improving data literacy around the world. According to undatarevolution.org, activities to improve data literacy need to emphasize data accessibility by establishing regulations and motivating data owners to open their data to the public. Additionally, the initiative seeks to improve how and when data is collected. Data literacy is necessary so that people can hold governments, intergovernmental agencies, and nonprofits accountable for development outcomes, such as health, education, and regional infrastructure projects.
While data is vital to understanding progress and development at a subnational, national, regional, and global level, we as undergraduate students and new members of IPD’s Climate Change Team, have been daunted by data and how to interpret it. Hundreds of indicators, password-protected files, and the need for technical savvy have often made data difficult to analyze and interpret for untrained researchers.
Our experiences at IPD have exposed us to tools and software that can turn data into more easily readable charts and maps. However, we have only learned about the existence of such tools because we sought them out in an educational environment. Most people around the world do not have this opportunity. As emphasized by the Secretary-General, there is a need to find better ways to read and access the seemingly endless amounts of data available.
The UN’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development echoes Swedish Professor Hans Rosling’s platform for data literacy, gapminder.org. Started in 2005, Gapminder is a project furthering the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and sustainable global development. Coinciding with Rosling’s aim to heighten the practice of understanding statistics from a fact-based worldview, Gapminder features tools for unpacking data through graphs and maps.
Gapminder World converts complex data on countries into adjustable and easy to use maps. The site features Professor Rosling explaining and exploring data sets and trends. The site also has resources for educators, such as lesson plans, handouts, interactive presentations and Gapminder World Offline-- software allowing for continuous updates and access to Gapminder World for those without Internet access.
From our own experiences and knowledge about the lack of data literacy around the world, we understand that interpreting statistical data is a skill not widely developed. Yet data and the ability to interpret it relates to many significant topics in the world, such as interpreting government elections, assessing disease outbreaks, and even calculating one’s own finances. Instead of relying on data, however, people sometimes allow their personal experiences to influence their understanding of the world. This can lead to a distorted and biased view of what’s really going on. To help assess the gaps between those who can read data and those who cannot, Gapminder created The Ignorance Project. The Ignorance Project conducts surveys to uncover gaps in the public’s knowledge of data. These findings can then be used to create better tools that help people with data literacy.
The UN initiative stresses the importance of data literacy for sustainable development. Being able to read and access data allows for participation, idea formation and increased awareness. While having access to good data is extremely important (as the UN Data Revolution points out), it is equally as important to have people who are able to read it. Through data literacy people can have the ability to hold their leaders accountable or make decisions like what school or hospitals are the best. Data literacy, though potentially daunting, has the ability to empower and improve people across the globe.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Professor Rosling have recognized the danger behind ignorance and the benefits of having a data literate world. The existence of data literacy and accessibility tools have the potential to open the door of participation, freedom and responsibility for everyone by explaining difficult information on a basic level. Thanks to sites like Gapminder and the UN’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, we are a few steps closer to a data literate world -- and we'll all be the better for it.
Juliet Carrillo is a Sophomore, undeclared, and Shadhi Mansoori is a Freshman majoring in Neuroscience.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/8508041553/
4/5/2015 10:56:44 am
So what are your thoughts on how we, at higher education institutions, can do to promote such data literacy? How can we begin to do so not just via teaching, but other opportunities that engage both UT students and the broader community in informed discussions about data and development?
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