Open Data Community Maturity: Libraries as Civic Infomediaries.
The North American open data movement has seen enormous growth over the past five years. While many early open data policies focused "primarily on making data available" and were first perceived as a fringe idea in the minds of technology advocates, governments worldwide have now declared themselves "open by default" (Zuiderwijk and Janssen 2014, 27). The new norm in government is to make data not only readily available, but accessible, standardized, and free of charge (Janssen et al. 2012, Code for America n.d.). The process of mainstreaming or normalizing open data has triggered a number of important outcomes. One such outcome is the emergence of a new way of thinking about open data efforts as "open data ecosystems" and, more broadly, "open-government ecosystems" (Pollock 2011, Harrison et al. 2012). According to the ecosystem understanding of open data, making data and information open are first steps in the creation of a connected web that leads toward more transparent, accountable, open, and democratic governance. One effect of the growth of the open data ecosystem and the corresponding growth in the availability of open datasets is the rise of the civic technology movement.
Civic technology involves the use of open data, among other datasets, as the key information input into mobile-app technology development with a civic focus (Johnson and Robinson 2014). These applications have a variety of goals, such as helping people gain better access to municipal service delivery (e.g., transit trackers such as NextBus), give input into and receive information about municipal government activities (e.g., Textizen, an SMS public-engagement service), and learn what public facilities are close by (e.g., Seattle Park Finder). Together the ecosystem-thinking approach and the civic technology sector offer new engagement techniques and insights into how to connect people with open data so that its value can be unlocked. However, they also serve as reminders that the provision of open data on its own will not necessarily lead to desired change. While entrepreneurs experiment with ways to reap economic value from open data, it is unclear who will meet the challenge of putting open data to work on behalf of the public good.
In the early days of the Internet, the term infomediary was coined to describe people who "leverage the Internet to unite buyers and suppliers in a virtual marketplace to facilitate a transaction" (as cited in Anttiroiko 2008, 3,674; see also Janssen and Zuiderwijk 2014). This market focus, however, does not sufficiently capture the civic or public-good focus of the open data, open-government, and civic technology efforts that we are witnessing today. As open data and open-government ecosystems evolve and mature, deliberate efforts are being made to help unlock the civic value of open data.
This paper argues that a new kind of infomediary--the "civic infomediary"--is needed in the open data ecosystem, and that municipal government open data efforts should be deliberate about partnering with public libraries whose efforts in this direction predate our current digital age. A civic infomediary is a person or organization that connects community members with open data so that public value can be derived from the data. The shift from open data provision (e.g., catalogs) to open data ecosystems necessitates a reconsideration of the roles played by different actors in open data efforts. The civic infomediary is an important actor in open data and open-government ecosystems that serve to engage ordinary people, and not just experts, in open data use. This paper begins by discussing the importance and difficulty of making open data accessible to a wide range of people. It then turns to the efforts of one type of public institution --the public library--and positions libraries' work as that of a civic infomediary. Libraries are nonpartisan public institutions that offer physical places for people to access learning (Jaeger and Bertot 2011). Libraries, which have long functioned as centers for civic engagement and have fueled democratic movements (Kranich 2010), are increasingly reimagining their future beyond books, bricks, and mortar. In recent years, many libraries have become sites for makers and hackers to manipulate technology and data. Interestingly, library staff, scholars, and researchers see libraries' growing involvement with digital tools and information as a continuation of their long-standing work in technology-service provision and civic engagement. For instance, in 2003, Lowry found that libraries were adapting well to the "emerging world of networked information" and that students continued to depend on the library, albeit in "significantly different ways" (ix). However, this conception of libraries' role--as centers for civic engagement and as digital-information hubs--is not necessarily recognized outside nonlibrary communities, including the communities of civic technologists and municipal open data staff and researchers. This paper, which identifies public libraries as important but underutilized potential partners in the open data and open-government ecosystems, is likely to be of most interest to these nonlibrary communities. This paper concludes with recommendations for future research and reflections about the role(s) that civic infomediaries might play in working with government staff whose work involves urban and regionally specific geospatial information.
ACCESSIBLE OPEN DATA
With governments embracing the "open by default" approach to open data, there is a migration from open data as a novel concept to a practice with more endurance and permanence. However, government staff and open data proponents and users are increasingly recognizing that making data open is only the beginning; the true value of open data comes from its deployment (Johnson and Robinson 2014, Sieber and Johnson 2015). The open data movement currently is shifting focus from pushing for data to simply be open, to calling for organizing and structuring the data in a usable, accessible, and in-real-time format (Sieber and Johnson 2015). In the community of technologically proficient open data users, these datasets are finding their way into for-profit and not-for-profit apps (e.g., Code for America). In communities with well-established open data programs, there also are new and more frequent efforts to make even more open data accessible and useful to nonexpert users (Bartenberger and Grubmuller-Regent 2014).
Early research on open data identifies a wide range of barriers to its use, including institutional challenges, the complexity of working with data, capacity barriers in all user groups including government staff and in the general public, information quality, and legislative barriers (Janssen et al. 2012, Zuiderwijk et al. 2012). Research shows that the general public has a hard time working with open data because it is in a format that is inaccessible to anyone but experts, or because members of the public do not have sufficient training in digital tools, or both (e.g., Currie 2013). David Eaves (2014), a longtime Canadian open-government advocate, is consistent in his message that open data needs to be organized and shared in a way that is easily searchable by a wide range of people, not just specialists. Working with open data requires a certain degree of computer and statistical literacy (Magalhaes et al. 2013). These barriers to access and use mean that, as Jacknis (2014) notes, "open government, particularly the open data initiatives, ... is not always very useful to the average citizen."
It might be tempting to step back and suggest that open data really does not need to be usable or accessible to all and that it would be more efficient to focus open data efforts on facilitating expert-user access and needs. This temptation is problematic in the civic context for two reasons. First, to leave open data in the realm of the expert undermines its transformative potential. The prioritization of expert use truncates the possibilities of civilian ingenuity that comes when an intrepid ordinary person mashes up data or creates an app that responds to public needs. Second, there is a reciprocity between open data and open government that needs to be explicitly recognized. Open data is widely recognized as having the potential to support transparency, accountability, and accessibility (the pillars of open government) and governments that are open have active open data efforts.
Open data is an input into open government. By manipulating these data, the public can better see and evaluate the work of government, which, in turn, allows them to advocate for or implement policy and service changes based on evidence from the data. Various organizations and advocates have argued that open-government services and data need to be "driven by citizen demand" (IFLA 2013, 18). Institute of Museum and Library Services Director Susan H. Hildreth argues, "We won' t have open government, accountability, or citizen engagement unless our citizens can find and use government data and records" (University at Albany 2015). When open data is deployed for all users, it can reinforce or buttress the open nature of government. It also is essential that governments ensure effective public involvement with open data lest they create a new barrier between citizens and government information (Gurstein 2011). If open data is released in a way that only facilitates usage by the expert community, then open government is only available for elites and the opportunity to make government open for all is lost (Gurstein 2011).
By tailoring data release to expert users, government also misses opportunities to make open data as useful as possible for both experts and ordinary citizens. There has been a growing awareness in the open data community that, thus far, there has been brilliant progress on the supply side--opening up data and multiplying tools and apps of all kinds. But there has been far less progress on the demand and use side. The result is that thousands of promising datasets, apps, and sites remain unused; and a great deal of creativity and energy has gone to waste. (Mulgan 2013)
Daniel Kaufmann of Revenue Watch uses the term zombie data to refer to the "enormous collections of data that lack purpose and insight" (Thomson Reuters Foundation 2013).
A related issue is the value proposition of open data as a driver of better access. Early research on civic hackathons revealed that some municipal government staff in Canada are being asked to demonstrate to their own organizations the value of making data open (Robinson and Johnson 2016). In these local governments, where a business case for open data is sometimes required to facilitate opening up more data, the social and economic value of open data only can be realized when there is a diversity of users (see Martin 2014). NASA underlines the significance of this connection between data and its users, stating, "the value is derived from consumer use of the data. There is no inherent value in idle data. The objective of this endpoint is to unlock the significant public investment in earth observation data" (Thomas n.d.).
There is a subtle shift here in the discussion about open data in which we move from "open by default," with its implicit end goal of taking the data and making it available, to "open in play," in which the data is open, findable, usable, and actually in use. As Sieber and Johnson (2015) note, when governments publish data (e.g., "data over the wall"), it is the first step in creating a broader open data ecosystem. The bigger goal is what Sieber and Johnson (2015, 311) frame as "participatory open data," which occurs when governments and citizens engage in the coproduction of data. This active open data scenario has a greater social, political, and economic value, but it requires ongoing attention and effort. Speaking about civic hackathons as a means of connecting the public with open data, Harvey Low (2014), Manager of the Social Research Unit at the City of Toronto, reports:
So you need to begin thinking about it not being just about hackathons. While I think hackathons are great, you asked whether we are serving the needs of Canadians. What we've heard in the City is that they need an intermediary. They need an intermediary to take that data, such as that from municipalities or the province, and analyze it on their behalf.
When thinking about open data and open-government ecosystems and civic technology tools in a practical way, a question arises, which is: Who is doing this work? Or, in the language of political scientists: Who are the actors and what do they do? The role(s) of the people who work with civic open data are important because they remind us that these data are not transformative in and of themselves.
This recognition that data needs to be stewarded is not new. Hagel and Rapert (1997) are credited as the first to use the term infomediary during the early days of the Internet. They predicted that "companies we call infomediaries will seize the opportunity to act as custodians, agents, and brokers of customer information, marketing it to businesses on consumers' behalf while protecting their privacy at the same time" (Hagel and Rapert 1997, 54). In their discussion, Grover and Teng (1997) argue that "by definition, infomediaries leverage the Internet to unite buyers and suppliers in a virtual marketplace to facilitate a transaction" (as cited in Anttiroiko 2008, 3,674). These descriptions call to mind contemporary companies such as Facebook and Google. The definition of infomediary has shifted slightly since the late 1990s. A more contemporary definition is: "an Internet company that gathers and links information on particular subjects on behalf of commercial organizations and their potential customers. Infomediary is a combination of info(rmation) and (inter)mediary" (Entrepreneurial Insights n.d.). However, it is unclear how these third-party, private-sector, customer-focused infomediaries help deliver public good in an open data ecosystem.
Infomediaries, as imagined previously, are paid third-party organizations working between governments and their citizens. While it is easy to imagine how these services could help accelerate open data use and app development, it is more difficult to imagine that community members will have universal and equitable access to data if they are required to pay for the services of an infomediary. This arm's-length paid relationship means that the public is still not directly engaging with the data and that open data still is being used in, or mediated by, an expert system. When the data work is outsourced to an infomediary, the public misses the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with the data. This arm's-length relationship usurps deepening public open data literacy and thus limits the potential for open data to lead to democratic change. If the goal of open data programs is to develop an active environment in which the public works directly with data to achieve social, political, and economic value, then these programs should plan to involve a new kind of infomediary--a civic infomediary--that supports direct public engagement with open data (see Table 1).
LIBRARIES AS CIVIC INFOMEDIARIES
Key challenges currently facing the open data movement relate to maintaining and organizing open data, and making those data accessible to a wide range of users. These challenges could be effectively addressed by an institution whose purpose is to steward information and connect communities with that information--the public library. Libraries have undergone remarkable changes as their users' needs have shifted. The public library as "information hub, steward, and intermediary, has long been an important community resource [, but,] ... [i]n the 21st century, the public library is increasingly being called on to take a more significant role in responding to community needs" (University at Albany 2015).
Recent research has begun to explore the changing role of public libraries. The Knight Foundation, 1 the Information Policy and Access Center, 2 the Aspen Institute, 3 and the University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government (CTG)4 all have initiated projects that shed light on how libraries can and should change as civic institutions. From this and other work on libraries, we can discern several key features that suit the library for the role of civic infomediary in the open data movement. The first of these is the library's increasing focus on technology.
Although libraries are rarely thought of as places on the cutting edge of new technology, in fact, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project concludes that many libraries are "transforming themselves into technology hubs" (Peterson 2013). Libraries have increasingly been adopting a range of roles in their communities related to digital technologies, such as providing computer access and digital services, including digital-literacy instruction. A particularly important role that libraries currently play is delivering e-government services (Jaeger et al. 2014). "Bookless" libraries have even been established, such as BiblioTech, the all-digital public library in Texas, and the Do Space library in Omaha, Nebraska. Do Space describes itself as a "technology library, a high-tech workshop, and an innovation playground for our community. It doesn't matter how savvy you are or how much you know. At Do Space what counts is your desire to learn, create, explore, and invent. Our mission is to empower Do Space members through technology access and education" (Do Space n.d.).
As many libraries have begun to offer technological equipment and training, they also have become more "collaborative and interactive" (Coyle 2013). For instance, many libraries have hosted hackathons and established makerspaces, which are "workspaces that provide technological tools and are designed to facilitate collaborative work" (Fallows 2016). A 2013 web-based study found that 41 percent of responding librarians currently provide makerspaces or offer maker activities in their libraries and 36 percent of respondents planned to start makerspaces in the near future (Price 2013).5 Miguel Figueroa, director of the Center for the Future of Libraries at the American Library Association, explains the popularity of these initiatives, saying "makerspaces are part of libraries' expanded mission to be places where people can not only consume knowledge, but create new knowledge" (Fallows 2016). However, this optimistic claim has been challenged by critics (Vossoughi et al. 2016, 208), who point out that "the mainstream discourse of making is also distinctly economic. Practices such as taking things apart, building new designs, and testing out solutions are valued insofar as they contribute to new technological and commercial innovations."
Libraries also are well positioned to serve as civic infomediaries for open data initiatives because they are "open, public, neutral civic space[s]" that have a strong connection to their local communities (Hill and Mattern 2014). Libraries provide the physical infrastructure that can support their communities' "informational and social infrastructures" (Mattern 2014). This support can come in a variety of forms, such as hosting events, providing meeting spaces, and allowing free and open access to a range of technologies. The Toronto Public Library, for instance, says that its local library branches "design programs and services to meet the needs of their local communities. For each branch, collections are carefully selected to meet local needs, custom programs are scheduled, and services are provided to ensure culture and language needs are met" (Martin Prosperity Institute 2013, 9). The Edmonton Public Library has been actively hosting hackathons and other data-related events, and its Open Data Mission Statement explicitly defines its responsibility in "working to increase open data literacy and encouraging citizens to unlock the value of open data" (Edmonton Public Library n.d.). This trend is not limited to larger cities: In 2017, Saint John Free Public Library, in partnership with the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada--a community of approximately 67,000--hosted a series of four Open Data Book Club workshops on topics such as health care, transportation, and social planning, all under the theme, "Finding the Livable City" (Saint John Free Public Library n.d.). Because libraries are connected in this way to their communities, they are ideally situated to become hubs for civic engagement with open data. Many libraries already provide data-literacy instruction and Internet/computer access. These functions could be usefully expanded to include further access to and instruction in the use of open datasets to help communities answer the questions that are important to them. In 2016, for example, the Toronto Public Library organized an open data hackathon in which participants were invited to tackle several problems faced by organizations involved in the city of Toronto's Poverty Reduction Strategy (Toronto Public Library, n.d.).
The last of the public library' s strengths from the perspective of the open data movement is its expertise in maintaining, organizing, preserving, and curating information, as well as teaching people how to use and understand that information. This expertise means that libraries are well positioned to help municipal governments solve the problems surrounding the organization, searchability, and accessibility of open data. Data librarian Celia Emmelhainz (2015) is excited about the potential of open data, but recognizes that the public will require help if this data is to become "truly accessible" to them. She argues that data librarians can introduce community members to open data, "opening up the world of data to the community, helping people to access public data, or hosting workshops on data skills. Here I'm thinking of things like scraping real estate data and visualizing it using infographic tools like impact.io. People don't need a data genius as much as a data guide--and that's what librarians are there for" (Emmelhainz 2015). Providing instruction in open data literacy is especially germane if broader participation is sought from constituencies traditionally excluded from digital-knowledge production (i.e., nontechnologically inclined individuals) with the aim of transforming urban open data into meaningful place-based knowledge (Mattern 2017).
One city that has been exploring a new role for the public library in its open data initiative is the city of Boston. Boston's award-winning project entry in the Knight Foundation Library Challenge proposes "connecting the city's open data program with [Boston] libraries" (Wood 2015). Boston's Chief Information Officer explains that
We have a massive volume of data that we release to the public through this web site, but it's not very well organized and it's not very useful.... Instead what we want to do is bring the skills of librarians, cataloging, curating, relating datasets to bear on this incredible information resource and turn it into something that can be truly useful as knowledge for our residents, for businesses, for government employees, and researchers. (Wood 2015)
In cities such as Boston, libraries could become the principal civic infomediaries between the data, the public, and government.
The example of Chattanooga, Tennessee, also provides some insight into how libraries can support municipal open data efforts. According to Nate Hill, the former Deputy Director of the Chattanooga Public Library, this library has become "both the open data platform for the city and the home field for civic engagement related to open data and civic geeketry in general" (Hill 2014a). The Chattanooga Public Library has taken on a central role in the city's open data movement for several important reasons. For one thing, the library had available unused space--a fourth floor that was not being used. Another important factor is the city's fiber-optical network, which gives people access to 1 Gbps Internet speeds at low cost (Hill 2014a). This network allows the library to provide the "infrastructure for [digital] knowledge exchange" (Hill 2014b).
Chattanooga's political culture also contributed to the library's ability to advance open data initiatives in the city. Hill (2014a) calls Chattanooga's political climate "supportive and ripe for change." Nonprofit and citizen groups also were crucial in Chattanooga, which is a Code for America fellowship city. Collaborating with the Open Chattanooga Brigade and the city of Chattanooga, the library now provides "open-government and locally relevant datasets as library collections" (Hill 2014b). The transformed Chattanooga Public Library is "a hub for civic innovation, a public makerspace, a Giglab, and perhaps most important a flexible beta space simply for trying new ideas in public" (Hill 2014a). The library has hired an open data specialist and continues to take an active role, along with its partners, in empowering "citizens with city data to tell stories, solve problems, and better interact with their government" (Open Chattanooga n.d.). Clearly, the Chattanooga Library has taken on the role of civic infomediary by providing support for community members who are interested in exploring and manipulating open data. As a result, it is helping to unlock greater civic value from the city's data.
This paper has made abundant use of academic terminology such as open-government ecosystems and civic infomediaries. While the use of definitions and taxonomies is commonplace in the academic world, in a journal with a practitioner focus, it is the authors' hope that this new labeling will be acceptable in workplace settings as well. For government-based geographic information staff, the distinction between infomediary and civic infomediary matters, particularly in a climate of austerity and tight budgets (Donald et al. 2014). In their recent research, Robinson and Johnson (2016) interviewed government staff who work with open data and found that a common challenge reported by staff was not enough time or resources available to both release old datasets and to continue the ongoing release of new open data. Also, in some local governments in Canada, municipal staff were being asked to make business cases to support government staff participation in events such as civic hackathons (Johnson and Robinson 2014). In other words, senior staff wanted to know what the return on investment of staff time would be and whether the hackathon, using civic open data, would result in the creation of a "killer app." In governments with this business-case mindset, recognizing that there are important civic roles to be played by individuals and organizations to help bring open data "in play" confirms that a vital part of the value of open data transcends measurable financial deliverables.
Realizing the value of open data is an all-hands-on-deck proposition. Government open data has value inside and outside of government. Private-sector firms seeking to profit from open data can pay for the help they need, including the services of an infomediary. Governments have some internal data capacity, but civic infomediaries can help government achieve its open data goals. For example, Code for America serves as a civic infomediary when it convenes its brigade of coders to work inside government. Members of the public also could benefit from receiving this kind of support. Many nonexperts have a keen interest in open data and in fixing a problem but lack the data skills to get started. Here, civic infomediaries have an important role to play. This paper has focused on the public library to show--to open data community members--how its role is aligned with the animation and use of open data, but civic infomediaries can take many other forms. Moreover, this paper's identification of the role and importance of civic infomediaries serves as a reminder that releasing data into an open data portal is only the beginning of a vibrant open data effort. As the role of civic infomediaries becomes better understood, urban and regionally specific geospatial information experts may themselves step in, or they may recognize the need for new partnerships and collaborations.
Pamela Robinson is the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives in the Faculty of Community Services, and an associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University. She is also a registered professional planner. As part of the geothink.ca research team, her research and practice focus on urban sustainability issues, particularly on cities and climate change and the use of open data and civic technology to support open-government transformations. She serves on the board of directors of the Metcalf Foundation. She is an editor of Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space and Place (University of Toronto Press, 2013) and Teaching as Scholarship: Preparing Students for Professional Practice in Community Services (WLU Press, 2016) and is a columnist for Spacing magazine (www. spacing.ca). She also serves on the Toronto Public Library's Innovation Council.
School of Urban and Regional Planning
Toronto ON, Canada M5B 2K3
Lisa Ward Mather holds a Master's of Urban Development from Ryerson University. She was awarded the 2014 Ryerson Gold Medal for the Faculty of Community Services, as well as the 2014 Canadian Institute of Planners' Student Award for Academic Excellence. She also holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Alberta. Mather recently published an article entitled "Civic Crafting in Urban Planning Public Consultation: Exploring Minecraft's Potential" in the International Journal of E-Planning Research (Volume 5, Issue 3, July--September 2016). She currently is working as a researcher on the Geothink.ca project, exploring the role of public institutions, such as public libraries, and civic technology in expanding the democratic impacts of open data.
1973 Stratford Ave
South Pasadena, CA 91030
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(1) The Knight Foundation, motivated by a belief in the "centrality of libraries for building and maintaining an informed citizenry," initiated a news challenge to explore the role of libraries in building more knowledgeable communities (Bracken 2014).
(2) The Information Policy and Access Center (2011) has a libraries and e-government project that strives to determine "how best to bring together government agencies and public libraries. The project will also establish a set of best practices for the collaboration between government agencies and public libraries in the provision of e-government services to the public, which will enable their improved access and use."
(3) The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries "provides access to an online community working together to address the transformation of public libraries in the digital age" (http://www.libraryvision.org/) and produced a report entitled Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries. This report suggests that libraries can help people gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed today: "Economic, educational, civic and social opportunities are tied to a whole new set of knowledge and skills that barely existed a generation ago, and people without these skills or access to this information abundance are quickly left behind" (Garmer 2014, iv).
(4) University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government produced a report entitled Enabling Open Government for All: A Roadmap for Public Libraries, which "addresses growing questions about how 'open government' is influencing, and possibly transforming, the role of public libraries in their communities" (University at Albany 2015).
(5) Respondents to the survey include "Librarians from 30 U.S. states, from Alabama to Wisconsin, ... along with librarians from seven other countries (Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom)" (Price 2013).
Table 1. Definitions of infomediary and civic infomediary Infomediary Civic Infomediary By definition, infomediaries Civic infomediaries help make leverage the Internet to unite information and data accessible buyers and suppliers in a virtual and understandable so that marketplace to facilitate a citizens/the public can make transaction (as cited in better use of it in pursuit of the Anttiroiko 2008, 3,674). public good/democracy.
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|Author:||Robinson, Pamela; Mather, Lisa Ward|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2017|
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