Literacy has always been a key concept within the participatory design tradition. Early PD projects established a blueprint for projects to come by employing a mutual learning approach that treated users and designers as experts in their own fields who could benefit from each other’s domain knowledge (Nygaard and Terje Bergo 1975), and by taking a critical approach to literacy which focused on the politically and economically disenfranchised and had emancipatory end goals (Ehn 2017). As the field matured, these concepts of mutual learning and equalizing of power relations were drafted into a set of guiding principles for the field of PD (Kensing and Greenbaum 2013). It is within this tradition of mutual learning and critical literacy that we situate our data literacy research, and propose here an interactive workshop format that will allow attendees to explore the various ways in which data literacy processes and tools can contribute to conversations within participatory design.

Data literacy is a timely topic, given Belgium’s upcoming municipal elections and the role data has played in recent political campaigns (Grassegger and Krogerus 2017; Anstead 2017; Nickerson and Rogers 2014). Aligned with this year’s conference theme of politics and democracy, the workshop will raise questions about if and how data literacy practices can impact power dynamics and contribute to democratic decision making within communities. Conversely, we will also be interested in learning how democratic and participatory design approaches can inform data literacy and storytelling practices.

Data literacy for us is more than just the acquisition of knowledge and skills on how to use data. We define it as “the ability to read, work with, analyze and argue with data as part of a larger inquiry process” (D’Ignazio and Bhargava 2016). The aspirational goal here is to use data to constructively engage with issues the community cares about. A data literate society is a more inclusive society, which is why all data and data literacy approaches can and must be leveraged to empower citizens (Data-Pop Alliance 2015).

Data driven decision-making is increasingly valued within business and government. Recent advancements in free online data analysis and visualization tools, the publicizing of previously confidential data sets have added to the mythology and hype around Big Data (Boyd and Crawford 2012). Engaging the public in telling their own stories with data has been as aspiration of the Open Data Movement (Gurstein 2011). This so called data revolution has resulted in what some have called a data divide, where those with privileged access and knowledge about such data are given a seat at the bargaining table, while the voices of those who lack such skills, continue to be ignored (Boyd and Crawford 2011). The data literacy activities we are proposing have been designed to work with the data newcomers within our communities to give them a chance to use publically available data as a resource to advocate for change.

Our approaches are grounded in educational theories that focus on empowerment and participation. As Piaget argued, the data newcomers for us are not empty vessels to fill, but rather bring their own context, interest, experience, and reaction to datasets (Piaget and Cook 1952). Inspired by Friere’s “popular education”, we strive to weave empowerment and real context into all our activities (Freire 2000). Inspired by Ackermann’s approach to playfulness, we create playgrounds within these activities that use play to set participants up to be free to try otherwise risky endeavors without fear of failure (The Tinkering Studio 2014). Papert’s constructionism pushes us to let participants create personally meaningful objects within these experiences that externalize their learning and reflect how they relate to the data activity being introduced (Papert 1991). And by drawing from Donna Haraway and feminist theories of technology, we seek to examine the power structures at play in data analysis and visualization (Haraway 1988).

We see the data literacy activities we have built to be valuable within settings where the goal is to engage with communities who want to take control of their own data and the narrative that comes forth through it. In our own work, we have used this approach to promote an arts centric approach to building data literacy within a school community in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Bhargava et al. 2016). Students in this instance were invited to come together to look at their own data and find an interesting story they wanted to tell. The students then painted their data-driven story as a public mural that allowed the wider community to engage with the school and the work its students were doing. We are also using this approach in a research study involving disenfranchised communities in Atlanta, where we are interested in learning if the data literacy resulting from such workshops can bring about a change in the participants’ civic attitudes and behaviors.



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