Changing Planet

It Matters Most To You: On Digital Literacy and Data Production


There are three things that happened to me over the last two weeks that are entirely responsible for this entry:

ONE: I attended Quartz’s The Next Billion conference, an event about the one billion new internet users expected to come online by 2017. At the conference, Mark Surman, an Executive Director at Mozilla gave a talk that addressed in part the topic of digital literacy. Digital literacy is usually defined as access to the practices, skills, and cultural resources that can be applied to using and understanding digital tools. Surman described it more concisely: people knowing what choices they can make in regards to their devices. According to Surman, this skill is a hallmark of the 21st century, and is only becoming more important.

TWO: I re-read a Guardian article from October 2014 which was essentially a rumination on data ownership from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In the article, Berners-Lee makes the point that while firms have a financial investment in collecting data, it is individual users who should be most deeply invested in their data. “[My] information is more valuable to me than it is to the cloud,” he quips in the article. Translation: you’re the person who cares the most about your own data—after all, it’s about you.

And THREE: My mom inadvertently dropped some wisdom on me (as she is wont to do) . During a recent phone call, she asked how my Fulbright-National Geographic project was going. I immediately launched into a long description about everything I’ve been doing: meeting with participants, figuring out how to present people’s data, working out the kinks of the final product, and so on. When I finished my monologue, I heard silence on the other end.

“Are you going to figure out how to explain all of that in a way that a normal person can understand?” She finally asked.

Her point was made: I had fallen so deep into the granularity of my project that I had forgotten how to talk about it in a way that was clear, intelligible, and interesting for someone else to listen to. My own mom had been bored listening to me talk.

I'm interested in translating numbers like these into things that make sense to most people.
Data generated by my phone. My mission is to discover how to translate these into things that people can better understand.

So here’s what I learned from the convergence of these three events: more and more people are accessing the Internet and the web. In order to successfully participate in this emerging digital reality, it’s imperative that those internet users have the skill of digital literacy. If we don’t highlight the importance of knowing and understanding our devices and how they interact with our data, we’re in danger of creating and reproducing inequalities and privileging some people with greater access and abilities than others.

At the same time, just knowing this fact isn’t enough. It was so easy for me to slip into esoteric lingo and rambly nonsense when I was speaking with my mom, which is the exact type of talk and behavior that can be intimidating or just plain disinteresting. I’m working on a project that is deeply shaped by the goal of empowering people to understand the outcomes of their digital productions. If it was that easy for me to fall into the jargon trap, then perhaps it says something about how much of a conscious effort the process of inclusion and accessibility demands.

But there’s hope, and it comes in the form of Berners-Lee’s proclamation, something that over the past nine months I have found to be deeply true: people care about their own data. We care about our own lives, and when data is reframed as being just another aspect of us, it suddenly becomes important and easy to understand.

That’s the space that I’m trying to situate my project within, and as I near the end, it’s becoming ever more clear to me how important this mission is. As always, reach out to me if you have thoughts on ways to do this.

Mimi Onuoha is a New York City-based researcher and artist who is in the United Kingdom visualizing information about groups of Londoners based on digital data collected from their phones. Her project, which consists of website and exhibition outputs, uses data to explore the stories of how our increasingly networked relationships unfold across on and offline spaces.
  • Margo

    I’m very interested in your writing series! Admittedly, I need to familiarize myself a bit more, but in regards to this post– definitely agree with your mom (and you too)!

    By the way- what is all that from your phone? Location data?

    I think a mini-video or blog series on digital literacy education is necessary. For everyone internationally. There is a United States government report on how little people understand the terms and conditions of the sites they use and share their data with- social media sites as well as ecommerce. Same goes for the data people share to use apps on a smart phone.

    Keep up the interesting work!

    • Mimi Onuoha

      Thanks Margo! I think the idea of dedicating a video/blog series to digital literacy education is fantastic. I do wonder how many people would voluntarily opt into such a thing–is this the sort of topic that should be given a higher priority? Even potentially taught in schools?

      And yes, that was all location data!

  • Michael Wagner

    Great article. I’m soon to start a graduate program in Information Science and digital literacy/data literacy is something of interest to me. I will be following your work and experiences!

  • Kat Fitzpatrick

    Very interesting! And relevant ~ thank you for writing about it in “lingo” I could easily understand. ;->

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