Reading data right – the case for data literacy

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

“This illustrates the need for greater data literacy globally - consumers should be able to understand data not as an abstract concept, but as something that relates to their lives and the decisions they make every day.” These were the words of Dr Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute. She was referring to “a complex and evolving relationship with data.” That relationship was revealed by the results of a six-country survey into consumer attitudes to data across six European countries.

"I'm a data expert, consumer, citizen. I have different facets of data literacy."

Peter Wells, head of policy at the Open Data InstituteBut what exactly is data literacy and how can it relate to people’s every lives and decisions? This was a questioned I posed to Peter Wells, head of policy at the ODI. He made it clear that there are different kinds of literacy around data, which vary according to the role of the person. Using himself as an example, he said: “I am both a data expert at the ODI, and I am a consumer, and I am a citizen talking with government, so I have different facets of data literacy.”

He said that a consumer would need to make good decisions about data and would need to know where to go if they were worried about something data-related. A data literate consumer would also be better placed to know how social media platforms are using her data and where to go for guidance when making a particular decision about data. Data literacy among citizens could mean they are able to look up the track record of their local councillor or MP before deciding how to vote, for example, or research how unemployment has changed in their region.

Wells also said that the leader of an organisation would need to know how data could help the business or help to build public services, so data literacy would help in that respect. However, it is not just the leaders in organisation who need to be data literate.

"We need to be informed by data, not driven by it."

According to Wells, the need for greater data literacy in business in general stems from a widely-held misconception about data. “We find a lot of people thinking that the answer in data is the same as the answer in the real world. That’s not always the case. There’s always some limitations in data. That’s why we need to be informed by it, not driven by it.”

Jordan Morrow, global head of data literacy at QlikJordan Morrow, global head of data literacy at Qlik, said that for an organisation to prosper and advance, it needs to compete by utilising its data successfully, and therefore needs a workforce that can extract insight from that data. He emphasised that data literacy needs to exist at all levels of the organisations, although upskilling initiatives to raise the level of all employees should come from the top.

Morrow said: “It should start at the executive level, but you absolutely have to have that grassroots movement at the individual employee level. If you are trying to weave data into the existing culture of an organisation, you need buy-in from the top and employees who are excited about it.”

"We use data to inform our human decisions."

It seems that Morrow’s view is that employees need to be able to read data, whereas Wells goes a step further adding that employees need to be able to read data critically. In fact, Wells said that he and his colleagues at the ODI want everyone, not just employees, to read data with a discerning eye. “We’re actually trying to make society more informed by data so that, rather than being driven by what data tells us, we use data to inform our human decisions,” he said.

When it comes to data literacy education, in organisations it can be provided by data analytics vendors, but amongst the general public, it can originate from several places. Wells said that we can learn from each other, from friends, family, work colleagues, universities, schools, further education colleges, as well as receive training from private companies like Barclays Digital Eagles and Lloyds Digital Champions.

Wells also said that private enterprises and the government can play a part by demonstrating good practice. “On the Barclays website, if you talk with them about sharing your data, it guides you through some of the steps to consider before you decide whether to share,” he explained.

“Data is becoming ever-more present and used to build new services and make more decisions about us. We live in a world where it is increasingly easy to collect, share and use data, so people do it,” said Wells. From our smartphones, to our fitness trackers, to our ISPs, to our travelcards, we are all never-ending streams of data. It makes sense that we should all be able to understand it.