Engaging Civic-Minded Teens

Data literacy fosters YA participation and innovation

March 1, 2018

At Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Civic Data Zine Camp, young adults learned data literacy concepts by presenting statistical narratives and visualizations in a handmade zine format. Photo: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
At Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Civic Data Zine Camp, young adults learned data literacy concepts by presenting statistical narratives and visualizations in a handmade zine format. Photo: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Fake news. Alternative facts. Information literacy. To be a library professional in 2017 meant you were never far from these terms. Many institutions addressed them head-on with awareness campaigns, continuing education, and programming.

But what about data literacy? Did librarians tackle charts and graphs as much as headlines? And what about teens, who are often overlooked in the context of civic and voter preparedness?

Increasingly, librarians are addressing these questions by bringing statistical education and opportunities to young adults—and they’re using massive collections of open civic datasets to teach these lessons. American Libraries highlights a few libraries improving students’ comfort with infographics, supporting instructors, and encouraging teens to become more engaged citizens.

Teaching the basics

“We didn’t start with a premise. We left the topic up to them,” says Tess Wilson, civic information services intern in the digital strategies department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP).

Students enrolled in the weeklong Civic Data Zine Camp at CLP’s Squirrel Hill branch last summer produced narratives about UFO sightings, shark attacks, and US homicide rates. “We had one teen investigate her neighborhood in Pittsburgh,” Wilson says, “so it was a wide range [of topics].”

The program, which grew out of a project that Wilson developed while getting her MLIS at University of Pittsburgh, was an effort of CLP and the city’s Beyond Data Initiative to get young adults ages 12–18 to tell stories with data. The course was part of The Labs @ CLP curriculum—funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—and gave attendees a chance to investigate civic matters through research projects presented as zines.

“We were really interested in the handmade aspect of [zines]. I think it allowed for more intimacy with the data,” says Wilson. “And they’re a great way to disseminate information.”

To familiarize students with different types of qualitative and quantitative data, each zine was required to have a visualization, map, and survey or interview. CLP partnered with local journalism organization PublicSource to teach students data literacy concepts and develop what Wilson calls “a more critical mind-set.”

“The reporters came in and did some demonstrations [and] talked to the kids about using databases,” Wilson says, noting that the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center was a favorite local resource among project authors. PublicSource also helped students understand the importance of consulting multiple reliable sources and the concept of bias in seemingly straightforward datasets.

“I think [data] gives teens another avenue for engagement within their communities,” says Wilson. “I think it prepares them to make change within systems that rely on data, and that’s a really important thing.”

Though it’s not clear if the Civic Data Zine Camp will return as a lab, feedback from attendees was positive. “A couple of them said they loved everything about the week,” Wilson says. “Having the reporters there also helped to validate that journey.”

Building professional capacity

Teacher-librarians are well positioned to impart data literacy to teens, but who’s giving instructors the resources and support that they need to do so?

Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical associate professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information, and Jo Angela Oehrli, learning librarian at University of Michigan Library, were up for the task. As principal investigators of the two-year IMLS-funded project “Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction,” they set out to design materials for high school librarians looking to foster data and statistical literacy skills in their students.

“We were seeing on our own campus that data was becoming a powerful mode of expression and wasn’t working in ways that information literacy always works,” says Fontichiaro. With help from data and curriculum experts at the University of Michigan, Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, and colleges across the country, she and Oehrli developed virtual conferences, handbooks, webinars, and discussion questions.

Materials cover strategies for introducing teens to data and its usage, visualizations, and privacy topics, such as the implications of data collection by always-on devices like Fitbit or Amazon Echo. Though the initiative formally wrapped in September 2017, all deliverables—including the two books, Creating Data Literate Students and Data Literacy in the Real World: Case Studies and Conversations—are available for free on the project website.

“It’s not enough to have open data. You have to have people navigate that data, know it’s there, and know how to use it,” Fontichiaro says. “Our real goal was for librarians to be empowered, and our workshops show that when librarians and educators know more, they do more.” Materials were designed to be high impact for the school librarian who might not have time to teach a full lesson.

The virtual conferences provided insight into who is interested in these resources. “The first year we had over 80 different job titles sign up, from folks who work at state departments of education or government agencies to classroom teachers,” says Fontichiaro. About one-third of the audience consisted of high school librarians.

The information climate also affected people’s motivation for attending. “In 2016, we asked a registration question: ‘Why is it important for students to be data literate?’ And many people said, ‘Well, they need to make infographics.’ In 2017, the big answer was ‘to participate in elections.’” By demand, a third virtual conference is planned for July.

“I believe that an informed democracy makes better decisions, so I think this is a critical life skill,” Fontichiaro says, “especially in the era of artificial intelligence and algorithms.”

Inviting innovation

How can we innovate with open data? Libraries and librarians have a simple answer: Encourage people to use it.

Hackathons, well known in the academic library community, have been cropping up more frequently at public libraries—and participation is skewing younger. In 2016, Howard County (Md.) Library System (HCLS) decided to include the Civility Hackathon as part of its community’s Choose Civility program, where teams of students in grades 6–12 and college were assigned different civic problems to solve with technology.

It’s not enough to have open data. You have to have people navigate that data, know it’s there, and know how to use it.—Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical associate professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information

“We appealed to our community—private offices, private businesses, nonprofits—and said, ‘What are challenges that you’re facing that could possibly have a technical solution?’” says Alli Jessing, events and seminars manager for HCLS. Organizations conveyed their ideas in a Google Form, and some suggestions were packaged as prompts asking students to build resources that could, for instance, aggregate the needs of food banks and pantries in the area or connect someone unable to shovel snow with a neighbor willing to lend a hand.

Challenges were then scaled to specific age groups. “At every level we had someone who was new to it,” says Jessing. “The high schoolers and the college students created a more in-depth project where they actually used databases and APIs to create more functional websites.” Some data sources used were APIs from Google, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as datasets from Howard County Open Data and calendars from the school district and HCLS.

“Whatever the outcome is, they own that product,” says Jessing, who notes that at least one team decided to continue working on its project after the hackathon had ended.

Not too far from Howard County, the Library of Congress is getting in on the act with its Congressional Data Challenge, a competition inviting participants to develop digital projects that analyze, interpret, or share legislative data from Congress.gov in user-friendly ways. The challenge is accepting applications through April 2, and a $1,000 prize will be awarded to the best high school project.

Middle school students competing as the team "Website Trekkies" were challenged to create a centralized community calendar at the 2017 Civility Hackathon at Howard County (Md.) Library System. <span class="credit">Photo: Dennis Wood/Howard County (Md.) Library System</span>
Middle school students competing as the team “Website Trekkies”
were challenged to create a centralized community calendar at the 2017 Civility Hackathon at Howard County (Md.) Library System. Photo:
Dennis Wood/Howard County (Md.) Library System

“The data challenge is an established method of reaching software and app developers who can bring data analysis and visualization skills to create new experiences with our collections,” says Abbey Potter, acting chief of LC’s National Digital Initiatives. “Computer programming skills are being taught at an early age, and we want to give these young people an opportunity to show what they can do while learning more about legislative data and the legislative process.”

Drawing its inspiration from the successful Congressional App and Chronicling America challenges, LC expects to see submissions of visualizations, mobile and desktop applications, websites, and other digital widgets or tools, and hopes to feature projects at labs.loc.gov to inspire others to use the data.

“High schoolers, like everyone living in the United States, are affected by the legislation of our country every day, and giving them an inside and detailed look at lawmaking will only make them more informed,” says Potter. “That is the bedrock of a democracy.”