Using Open Data to Accelerate Data Literacy Learning

Happy Open Data Week from the great City of New York! On this day in 2012, our Open Data Law was signed, legislating that every NYC department provides its data online via the NYC Open Data Portal. Today, I want to share a unique approach to data literacy education that my students and I find engaging, informative, and- dare I say- fun! The cornerstones of that approach are open data and an inquiry-based learning pedagogy.

What is Open Data?

According to Open Knowledge Foundation, open data is information that people are free to “access, use, modify, and share without any legal, technological, or social restriction”. While open data has existed for a long time, it’s only been within the past decade that we saw a global shift towards governments providing their data for free access, use, and sharing in an effort to foster better relationships with their constituents and to provide more transparent, interactive services. Today, nearly every major city in the United States has some sort of open data portal. 

Rad Resource:

You can find a list of cities, states, and countries around the world with open data portals here. If you’re interested in open data beyond just government data, articles on Free Code Camp and Forbes curate some of the more popular open data portals available for use.

How I Use Open Data

Using open data in the classroom taps into a person’s natural curiosity about their environment. As citizens, we see and hear things that go on around us every day. This makes the chance to look at these issues on a city level especially interesting for students. Some of their favorite datasets include our 311 complaint data, our DOT’s data on collisions, and our census data over the years. I use the data as a cornerstone of the class, utilizing an inquiry-based approach to solving complex issues that affect all New Yorkers. As a class, we explore questions such as:

  • How can our data help us to increase the quality of life for New Yorkers?
  • How do we take a data-informed approach to reducing pedestrian fatalities?
  • What can be learned about NYC from its census data?

As the class unfolds, I strategically infuse data analysis skills as I teach my students how to use Microsoft Excel. By the end of each class, students walk away with enhanced data analysis skills; an increased awareness of the city, state, federal, and global data available; and a better understanding of their environment. 

Over time, I’ve found that the motivation to find answers to such gnarly questions, coupled with support from instructors and peers, drives the development of key analytical skills that can be transferred back to the datasets that students work with on a daily basis. Research supports this finding, asserting that learning activities with a personal connection can improve motivation, engagement, and learning.

Rad Resource:

You can read more about the use of open data in learning settings here, and more about an inquiry-based approach to learning in the sciences here.

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This post was originally published on March 7, 2020 in AEA365, a blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association (AEA) that is dedicated to highlighting Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources, and Lessons Learned for evaluators.

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