Big Data and Literacy

In my last post I wanted to try to pin-point some ideas that seemed important to me in reference to the discussion going on at ETMOOC and with Mozilla around digital literacy and web literacy. It has been really engaging with some great discussions on these topics with people via ETMOOC, and through the Webmaker network, and via Twitter as well.

There is so much more I'd like to say on the topic of digital literacy and web literacy. I should maybe also mention that a book on the subject has recently been written by Mark Pegrum in Australia, who as a teacher to myself and others during teacher training college in 2009 was instrumental in opening up this world and the wider world of education to me. More information about his work can be found on his wikispaces here and his new book is here.

But for now, I feel I want to introduce another aspect to the discussion, which relates directly to what the web would look like if everyone was participating to build a better readable and writable web.

That aspect is data. I think your personal data is an important place to begin in literacy. The second lesson most illiterate adult learners discover, once they can write and read letters and sentences - is that those letters and words serve most often to be used somewhere to fill in a form. They are essential of course, because they give access to rights, privileges and freedom. It gives a person the capability and ability to find a postcode and to send a letter for example.

Although it isn't always that simple. That form might equally be used by the government of an oppressive regime to deny you those very same basic human rights and privileges as well. It is no wonder then that the young Eritrean adult learners in my refugee classes, seemed often to look at my exercises based on form filling in class with a slight degree of suspicion. They were well aware of where all this learning could lead them, despite my own idealistic intentions as they had witnessed how their own government had systematically used schooling and the education system as a means to oppress and dominate its citizens.

Although the fact that this has been going on and has been well documented by Human Rights Watch since 2009 seems not to feature highly in the press. It certainly seems to be of little interest to the UK, Australian, Canadian and Chinese mining companies who are rushing in to try and grab a piece of the profits from exporting Eritrea's largely untapped mineral wealth.

It has been selected to be the most repressive nation on earth by Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, with the highest number of journalists jailed per capita. Afewerki regime's has effectively turned the nation into a giant prison. It has become one of the top ten refugee producing countries in the world.

So I think as I had mentioned in looking at literacy before, the limits of discourse around it as a tool tend to also reflect the concerns of those who hold power over others. That may be due to the state's need to control its citizens, or due to a religious movement's need to control its faithful. So sudden periods of mass expansion of literacy have often been linked to turbulent revolutions in the past. Good examples of this might include the Protestant reformation or the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia in the early 20th century, who orchestrated at that time one of the most effective drives to expand basic literacy in the world.

In my post on digital literacy I also mentioned that it seemed to me that we need to bear in mind the context in which we are speaking of literacy today. In the current shift in economic terms towards human capital becoming the new currency it is less important that you be able to operate within the formal bureaucratic structure of the state, to use the right language to fill in forms and to lift yourself up to work in a white collar job.

You are not just the ward of some state anymore. It is quickly becoming clear that the networks themselves rather than the organs of the state have become the nodes of control and also the new commodity, and you are situated within them in one way or another. A worker's new value is to be flexible and to be able to learn all that they need to learn as they go, to serve more effectively as the intersection between ever expanding and powerful networks. This is also why we require a new form of 'literacy' for the digital world.

That is also why your data and your use of data as a 'digitally literate' person is important and why it is increasingly becoming evident that the state does not really hold its traditional monopoly over it any longer. In sum, information as Doug Laney the originator of the discipline of infonomics has clearly announced, has become an essential asset for companies, intangible as it may be. Big data in this discussion will continue to draw increasing attention as it focuses on opportunities to deploy information in transformative ways as Gartner's 2013 research agenda is seeking to realize.

The World Economic Forum recently summed up some of its thinking around the emergence of personal data as a new asset class in these terms on its website:
"Personal data is becoming a new economic “asset class”, a valuable resource for the 21st century that will touch all aspects of society... to unlock the full potential of personal data, a balanced ecosystem with increased trust between individuals, government and the private sector is necessary"
The key questions that have been brought to the discussion here by the World Economic Forum have been seeking implicitly to leverage personal data, and indeed information itself for economic growth. Some of the questions for example posed in their recent report, Rethinking Personal Data: Strengthening Trust are:
  • Who owns personal data?
  • How do we protect individual privacy?
  • How should rules for usage be formed and what is the role of context in establishing permissions?
  • How should organizations that use personal data be held accountable, both for securing data and for adhering to the agreed-upon rules?
  • What is the role of regulators given the global flow of personal data?
And so logically a framework around digital literacies has implications for how emerging information-related skills and practices should be planned, considered and and acquired. It also has implications for how data will then be distributed, transformed, managed, consumed and produced by these new digital skill bearers and literates through such practices.

If you see what I am getting at here. If we are going to talk about web-literacy and digital literacies and about (re) making a better web, it is going to be essential that we do not lose sight of this in the background. The key principles that will serve as the anchor points for global digital governance of the future web will fundamentally change our understanding of web-literacy and digital literacy as well.

And if you think that this should be something that people should have a lot more say about, then I think you would not be wrong. The World Economic Forum however has kindly congregated a useful network of experts to conduct a methodologically sophisticated exercise to suggest a pathway for solutions to begin to be articulated, which is described in this short video clip about the topic here:

This all brings to my mind so many questions and considerations that I think I would not do much justice to here for now. I would point out though in the clip the prominence of data literacy in the thinking of our experts.

Of course I would absolutely appreciate it if people did have any feedback on this, and to share their ideas or to critique the ones I have put forward as well.

This post also I hope points forwards towards the next topic that will feature in the ETMOOC adventure next week which will be the wider Open Movement and Open Access, and Open Educational Resources.

I look forward to continuing the discussion then :)

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