Should Libraries Be the Keepers of Their Cities’ Public Data?
In recent years, dozens of U.S. cities have released pools of public data. It’s an effort to improve transparency and drive innovation, and done well, it can succeed at both: Governments, nonprofits, and app developers alike have eagerly gobbled up that data, hoping to improve everything from road conditions to air quality to food delivery.
But what often gets lost in the conversation is the idea of how public data should be collected, managed, and disseminated so that it serves everyone—rather than just a few residents—and so that people’s privacy and data rights are protected. That’s where librarians come in.
“As far as how private and public data should be handled, there isn’t really a strong model out there,” says Curtis Rogers, communications director for the Urban Library Council (ULC), an association of leading libraries across North America. “So to have the library as the local institution that is the most trusted, and to give them that responsibility, is a whole new paradigm for how data could be handled in a local government.”
In fact, librarians have long been advocates of digital inclusion and literacy. That’s why, last month, ULC launched a new initiative to give public libraries a leading role in a future with artificial intelligence. They kicked it off with a working group meeting in Washington, D.C., where representatives from libraries in cities like Baltimore, Toronto, Toledo, and Milwaukee met to exchange ideas on how to achieve that through education and by taking on a larger role in data governance.
It’s a broad initiative, and Rogers says they are still in the beginning stages of determining what that role will ultimately look like. But the group will discuss how data should be organized and managed, hash out the potential risks of artificial intelligence, and eventually develop a field-wide framework for how libraries can help drive equitable public data policies in cities.
Already, individual libraries are involved with their city’s data. Chattanooga Public Library (which wasn’t part of the working group, but is a member of ULC) began hosting the city’s open data portal in 2014, turning a traditionally print-centered institution into a community data hub. Since then, the portal has added more than 280 data sets and garnered hundreds of thousands of page views, according to a report for the 2018 fiscal year.
Under a Knight Foundation-funded initiative called Open Data to Open Knowledge, Boston partnered with its public library to revamp the city’s open data program in 2015 with the goal of driving engagement between the public and the city’s data. The library, which is part of ULC’s working group, ultimately helped catalogue Boston’s trove of existing data into a user-friendly portal. In doing so, they made clear that the data is part of the public domain, with no restrictions to access.
It’s a fitting task for libraries, whose mission has always been to “collect and make accessible to the public information that the public has rights to read,” says open data advocate Alex Howard. “That’s their job.”
To ensure that data is truly equitable, ULC’s initiative will emphasize education. That is, helping residents understand how their data is being used by governments and private entities—as well as the implications of those uses—and become knowledgeable about their privacy and data rights.