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Photo by William White on Unsplash

On libraries, communities, and open data

My colleague Sarah Washburn recently shared a post by Tess Wilson on our team slack: “I’m a public librarian. This is why I’m also a civic-tech advocate”. Sarah wrote, “You’ll love it.” She was right.

My love of libraries is not secret. And our commitment to collaborating with libraries is longstanding. It is a challenge, though, to articulate the connection as well as Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Tess Wilson did in her post.

Wilson writes:

… [W]hen I talk about open data, I talk about opportunity and agency — the opportunity to investigate and the agency to disrupt. And this becomes especially vital when we consider who the public library serves.

Naturally, there are scholars researching and professionals analyzing. But there are also attentive parents wanting to know more about school trends, active commuters seeking out transit statistics, concerned citizens looking for crime data and curious children hunting for dog license registrations. By including folks who we might refer to as “non-technologists” in this dialogue, we help to encourage a more holistic and approachable conversation.

As a space built and sustained by collaborative community efforts, the library has the chance to serve as conduit between users and technologies. With this approach, we can begin the civic tech processes with inquiry, then employ innovation.

Beginning the process with inquiry is a method we try to model, not always successfully. By starting with what people are curious about, the questions they have, and the possibilities they want to open up, we provide an opportunity for community members to be engaged in the civic process.

Community members prioritize.

Starting with inquiry allows community members to reveal their priorities for open government and open data efforts. The issues community members care most about can provide color and context to help inform, among other things, which data might be useful and how it might be used.

The goal of Feito na Biblioteca (Portuguese for “Made at the Library”), funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is to identify ways that Brazilian libraries can be a center for access to government resources, data, and services. We started with a process we think of as extreme listening. Residents in a small town in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil, wanted to know how to find their bus. The issue isn’t one of technology; it’s not even really one of data. Those problems are solved. There are hundreds (thousands?) of tools to locate buses. The issue was one of priorities. Neither the government nor the transportation company had prioritized publishing the data.

A local librarian changed that; and not just by hosting events. She brought the bus company, the mayor, and other city officials into the discussion. She led citizens through a process that allowed their priorities to become evident and their burning question to rise to the top: Where can I find my bus? That gave both government and business a clear view of what citizens wanted from open data.

Community members control.

We all produce data by living our lives in a world that increasingly captures and digitizes our activities. But what happens when community members are agents in using that data?

MAKAIA, an NGO located in Medellín, Colombia worked with local residents to place air quality sensors on library buildings, community centers, and other organizations that provide internet connections and computers for the public. Imagine an air quality monitor situated on an outside wall where residents can read the measurements in real time. With this community resource, residents decide how they use the data that is produced. Data from the sensors also provides them with a mechanism to validate environmental data collected and shared by the government. That control — the ability to get as local as they want, to be intimately connected to the data, and to validate government and other findings — puts tremendous power in the hands of the community.

Community members produce.

Some of the most valuable data NGOs and libraries have illuminates the experience of people that are not captured in routine business and government services. This data is seen through the services we offer people who may not be able to access the peace and security that governments provide, along with all the dividends, like food, clean drinking water, safe shelter, quality education, the right to love the people they love, and worship the deity they worship.

These community members can visit a library with a question about a service or a need. These questions provide a picture of desired services, unmet needs. And that is data too. With help from librarians, this data can be made available to the broader community to inform decision-making.

Does this mean that librarians make specific requests from patrons public? No. It means that the data can be aggregated and used to guide community inquiry and showcase experiences or problems that aren’t being attended to. The sheer number of people who look for resources around food, for example, provides information about the needs in our communities.

We see the promise of this type of community produced data in the work of many of our partners. Enclude, in Ireland, has developed a tool that helps people dealing with substance abuse understand and see their own journey and progress. Participating organizations use the aggregate data to advocate to the government about the types of services that are needed to truly support this group of people.

We saw community produced data when the citizens in that southern Brazilian town rode buses and mapped bus routes using their phones and GPS devices.

We see data in photos shown to us by a librarian in a community library in Rio de Janerio. Taken by young people, these photos captured their neighborhood: open sewers, crowded structures, and the places where they play and spend time.

People talk about the truth that is in data.

Frequently, that data is limited to what governments collect or businesses share. This provides a view of people who, by and large, are receiving services. And we can all look around and see why that is insufficient. With libraries as a collaborator, we can provide opportunities for community members, including some of our most vulnerable, to tell the story of their lives. Those stories are data that can be translated to understand needs and gaps in services. Combined with government or business data, these give us a more complete picture of the world we all inhabit. And a way to share resources that can transform communities and, if we work together diligently enough, even lives.

Marnie Webb is CEO of Caravan Studios. They are a division of TechSoup where Webb is also the Chief Community Impact Officer.

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Connects nonprofits & social benefit orgs w/ app-based tech to build solutions for real-world problems.Also tweets #opendata #hackathons.A division of @TechSoup

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