Better the Data You Know: Developing Youth Data Literacy in Schools and Informal Learning Environments

We live in an era of unprecedented growth in the use and impact of data. While large institutions are using data about individuals to drive decision-making, small organizations and civic hackers are using open and public data to innovate for social good. Meanwhile, the educational and informational resources to enable individuals to understand this data remain scarce. Individuals and communities are often unaware of the data being collected about them, the data they are contributing, and the ways in which that data is being used. Although the Open Data movement has given some individuals a new opportunity to interface with data directly, the public at large lacks the skills and knowledge to take advantage of this opportunity. This thesis argues that we need to support the public — especially youth — in developing data literacy, so that they are equipped to think critically and ethically about data. I make this case in four ways. First, I contextualize the need for data literacy by describing the historical evolution of institutional data collection practices, contemporary uses of data that have had a profound impact on institutions and individuals, and the potentially problematic consequences of data modeling. Second, I propose a definition of “data literacy,” situate the concept within the landscape of new media literacies, and describe settings, methodologies, and tools that can be used to support it. Third, I analyze two data literacy initiatives that enable youth to use data to investigate and address real-world issues: one in an informal learning environment, Young Rewired State’s Festival of Code, and the other in a public school, City Digits: Local Lotto. Fourth, I analyze the challenges facing data literacy initiatives — from the constraints of the public school environment, to the challenges of reaching diverse audiences and supporting open-ended learning. I propose three design principles to guide researchers, educators, and practitioners in shaping future data literacy initiatives.


About Erica Deahl

Erica Deahl is a designer and researcher creating media for education and social impact. She co-leads the City Digits project at MIT's Civic Data Design Lab, developing classroom curricula and building geo-spatial tools to help high school students conduct data-driven urban investigations. Erica is currently an S.M. candidate in the Comparative Media Studies program, where her research focuses on using digital media in K-12 public education to support technological literacies and promote civic engagement. Previously she was a senior designer at 2x4 in New York City, where she designed and managed interactive projects for cultural sector clients. Thesis: Better the Data You Know: Developing Youth Data Literacy in Schools and Informal Learning Environments


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