Data literacy: essential skills for the 21st century
Data and technology are now ubiquitous in our daily lives. Although we have unprecedented access to data from various sources, we increasingly have to provide our personal data in order to access various online services. Even though this exchange is voluntary, we are not entirely aware of its implications.
This flow of data clearly raises many questions about privacy, consent and the reliability of information, among other issues. To be better prepared to deal with these issues, people need to develop new data literacy skills. These are described by the government of Quebec as 21st century skills, as the ability to find, access and verify relevant data and information while viewing digital technology with a critical eye.
Background: Dataware Project
At Open North, we recognize the importance of developing responsible, critical and engaged citizens, prepared to deal with the world of data. It was in that vein that we launched the Dataware Project, the aim of which is to improve the data literacy skills and knowledge of youth aged 17 to 29. The project has focused on two concrete objectives:
A series of workshops aimed at improving basic skills in data use, while developing critical thinking.
The creation of an open and reusable curriculum on public data use.
We chose to develop a data literacy curriculum on food security and food environments in Montreal. Why address these topics?
For several decades, we have been witnessing the development of an agricultural production and mass consumption system. This model generates a considerable number of negative externalities among individuals and communities. It contributes to social inequities, climate change and the depletion of natural resources. These challenges encourage a large number of players (food citizens, decision-makers, distributors and producers) to explore and adopt new paradigms and production methods. To make informed choices and take action, players need new means and information. This is why we are providing this data literacy curriculum to better equip people to address food issues in their communities.
The Dataware Project, funded by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) under its Community Investment Program, was carried out in cooperation with our partner Communautique from May 2019 to end of April 2020.
To share the fruits of this work, this blog post takes stock of the main activities carried out by Open North as part of the project. We first summarize our research, co-creation and experimentation efforts to highlight the main results of these efforts, after which we provide an overview of the curriculum components.
In the initial stages of the project, Open North undertook literature searches with the aim of determining which issues and datasets would be the focus of the educational materials to be developed. This approach has enabled us to identify social and civic issues that will benefit from greater openness of public data as well as citizen support. Our approach focused on identifying needs in Montreal so that we could target topics that are important to our local data user community. This research phase led to the selection of two main themes: Local democracy and healthy, sustainable local food systems.
We then undertook a review of academic and grey literature to identify theories and practices relevant to our project. Based on these sources, we reviewed data literacy concepts and approaches that enabled us to identify and define the main themes of the curriculum.
Next, we contacted food experts to obtain their opinion on the creation of the curriculum and determine the target learning objectives. At a co-creation session in November 2019, contributors included food sector players such as Transformations Hub in Food Justice and Sustainability at Dawson College, Food Banks of Quebec, and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec.
In concrete terms, we invited stakeholders to share their knowledge, experiences and challenges by accessing and working with data on local food systems. The discussions and interactive workshops held on that day confirmed the skills and knowledge that would be transmitted through the curriculum.
In these discussions, we brought up how data with a civic interest, once made understandable and accessible to the general public, can become a real tool for citizen action. In this regard, participants expressed the importance of developing this data literacy learning tool, as it will provide a means for the public to become informed and subsequently to respond to food issues in their communities.
Experimentation with Factry students
To test the educational materials we developed, we organized a workshop with a group of young Montrealers. This group of students was contacted as a result of their participation in the Pause programme. The educational program, designed and run by Factry, provides 20 young people with active creativity training and a group learning experience over an eight-month period.
Our data literacy workshop, attended by the 20 students from the first Pause group, involved 4 learning goals:
Become familiar with the food data ecosystem
Study the state of access to food in Montreal by consulting and handling datasets and mapping tools
Develop a critical view of data and their uses in their specific context
Increase your power to act for access to better data and healthier, sustainable and equitable local food systems
At the workshop held in March 2020, we explored with students how data and mapping tools can help us observe and understand the food access situation in Montreal. To that end, we conducted a series of collaborative activities on two themes: the state of food security and food environments in Montreal. These activities required the use of critical thinking while calling for conscious and responsible use of data. At the end of the session, we offered young people concrete steps for taking action toward better data and healthier, sustainable and equitable local food systems.
What did the students from the data literacy workshop learn? Some testimonials
The main outcome from the workshop was an increase in the knowledge and skills of data literacy students, evidenced by the participants’ testimonials (see below).
“The training reminded me of the extent to which data are not unbiased, not to blindly rely on the information we are given… it can influence the judgment of those who produce them. We need to have a critical mind.”
“I wasn’t aware of the availability of online data, I needed information to search for and find them, and I wasn’t aware of how far you can go.”
“There’s really a lot of data out there. However, you need to know how to screen them.”
“The conclusions that can be drawn from data are really interesting, but we have to be really careful not to include our biases and reinforce certain prejudices.”
“Interesting to see how everything you do may turn into “data”. Data is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous!”
Discover the Dataware curriculum
Ultimately, the Dataware Project provided Open North with an opportunity to develop and channel its data literacy knowledge in collaboration with various stakeholders. This project is an open and reusable citizen learning tool that can have a real impact on a civic issue that concerns our local communities now and in the future: the need to have quality food in sufficient quantities.
It is therefore with great pleasure that we invite readers to discover and freely use the content of the curriculum that is now available on our website. This document contains the activities and templates needed for training purposes. You will also find an accompanying PowerPoint presentation that provides an overview of the key training concepts and activities.