Making Data Relevant at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Photo of green maple leaves in dappled sunlight

We caught up in May with Eleanor Tutt of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, who also has funding from IMLS to work on data but with a focus on citizen engagement with data. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post outlining some of their work:

Data seems to come up in all sorts of conversations these days, and they reach way beyond math class. For example, civic data—which includes information about our city and citizens—is a great way to engage with your community on a deeper level, and can be a powerful tool for change! Since civic data is about the people and places you see every day, it can be tough to notice. Based out of CLP-Main, the Civic Information Services team is helping to uncover and share the ways data fits into life at the Library and throughout Pittsburgh, and we have a lot of fun stuff in store.

The STEM Committee has been busy sowing the seeds for their Super Science Kits, and we just couldn’t wait to join them. Some of our favorite collaborations so far can be found in the Tree Kit. Two activities included in this kit feature data front and center: “Forest Logbook” and “Make a Tree Map.”

Have you ever kept a nature journal? Ever taken notes while walking in the woods? Surprise! You were actually collecting data. The “Forest Logbook” activity invites you to tame wild data with a pencil and paper. While on a short nature walk around the library, kids will keep a close eye on the plants and animals they encounter, making notes as they go. Collecting nature data is especially exciting because we can measure anything from the size of a tree trunk to the furriness of a squirrel’s tail. And what fun would our data be if we couldn’t share it with friends? The group is encouraged to share and compare data with each other, which gives us the chance to spot similarities and differences. This activity serves as an easy introduction to observation and collaboration, both of which are crucial steps in data collection. While the trees are busy making oxygen outside, do you ever wonder what’s up with the air in your own home? You can check out one of our Speck Air Quality Monitors for some super practical data collection.

Pittsburghers are really lucky when it comes to data, because the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center gives us access to a bunch of cool civic information, from playgrounds to bus stops. The dataset we use for our “Make a Tree Map” activity was created by the City of Pittsburgh. Taking a close look at data and comparing it to what we see outside is an important part of data literacy, as we can use that step to determine why and how data is collected. After that, it’s time to create our own tree maps! Because we can create our map using characteristics from climbability to circumference, each one will be a totally unique look at the same set of data.

Sound fun? Read the rest of the post here. Also, here’s some trivia: at the time of his retirement, my great-uncle was the longest-serving employee at this library system, having spent over 40 years as a bookbinder.

Image: (public domain)

Originally posted to our data literacy project site



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Ethical Data Example: Black Bears and GPS Tracking

Photo of black bear standing in grass

Here’s a snip of a cool article from the Smithsonian that reminds us that while data collection and sharing can be great, sometimes data’s immediacy can cause new problems and it’s important to put the brakes on. Sure, park rangers at Yosemite want to help visitors learn what bears do and how they move, so why not share the GPS data of some bears? At the same time, some tourists to the park, armed with real-time data, might use it to find bears … and that disrupts things. From the article:

Hundreds of black bears amble through … Yosemite National Park in California … [N]ow, thanks to a new tracking system, fans of the furry animals can follow the creatures’ meandering paths—from the safety of their couch.

As Scott Smith of the Associated Press reports, the park recently launched a website called Keep Bears Wild. One of the site’s main features is the aptly-named “Bear Tracker,” which traces the steps of bears that have been fitted with GPS collars. But the animals’ locations are delayed, Ryan F. Mandelbaum reports for Gizmodo, so curious humans aren’t tempted to scout the bears out. Rangers can turn the data on and off, and tracks will be removed during fall and winter to ensure that the bears can hibernate peacefully.

The goal of the project is to educate the public and whet the appetite of bear enthusiasts, without putting anyone in danger …

These may seem like intuitive precautions, but bears are repeatedly threatened by their interactions with humans. More than 400 of Yosemite’s bears have been hit by cars since 1995, according to the Keep Bears Wild site. And bears that feast on human food can become aggressive, forcing rangers to kill them “in the interest of public safety,” the site explains.

While the Bear Tracker provides limited data to the general public, it is also useful to park rangers, who can view the bears’ steps in real time. For the past year, a team led by wildlife biologist Ryan Leahy has been using the technology to track bears on iPads and computers, according to Ezra David Romero of Valley Public Radio News. And as Smith reports, rangers can follow GPS signals and block bears before they reach campsites.

The tracking devices also help rangers learn more about black bears’ behavior. The animals can traverse more than 30 miles in two days, the data suggests, and easily scale the 5,000-foot walls of Yosemite’s canyons. The trackers have revealed that the bears begin mating in May—one month earlier than previously thought.

An interesting ethics reminder that there are times when better access data could be unintentionally harmful …

Image: Public domain from

Cross posted from our data literacy project blog

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Data Viz: News Deserts

The Columbia Journalism Review has been assembling a national map showing “news deserts” around the United States. It’s utterly fascinating. In some states, like Nebraska, nearly half the state does not have a daily newspaper (or hasn’t reported one). How does that impact voting? Civic engagement? The sharing of local and beyond-local information among fellow citizens? What questions are raised when you look at it?

Screenshot of a detail of the Columbia Journalism Review's map of "news deserts"

Screenshot of a detail of the Columbia Journalism Review’s map of “news deserts”

cross-posted from our data literacy project blog

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Mapping the Opioid Crisis

First things first. You may have heard of the opioid crisis, but what is an opioid? I was surprised that when I went looking for a list of which prescription drugs are classed as opioids, it was somewhat tricky to find (my hypothesis is that some people know there’s an opioid crisis but don’t know that drugs like Percocet, morphine,OxyContin,  and Vicodin are opioids, leading me to suspect that part of the problem is that some patients don’t realize that the drug they just got is an opioid).

Here’s what WebMD says:

OK, now that we’ve got that background knowledge, let’s look at how visualizations about opioid prescriptions and fatalities in Michigan can yield some fascinating (albeit sobering) insights.

Julie Mack, with some graphics by Scott Levin, has a sobering article in MLive showing how opioid death has spiked in past years. In many counties, there were more opioid prescriptions written in 2015 than there were residents. (Of course, if opioids are dosed one month at a time, one resident’s year-long prescribed use would count as 12, right?)

One thing that really jumped out to me was the power of visualization via the two state maps at the bottom of the article.

The first colors counties according to which have higher rates of opioid prescriptions being written. Keep an eye on the Detroit area (southeastern corner).

Michigan map showing which counties have higher Rx prescription rates (Detroit area shown as very light)

Now take a look at the second one, ranking counties according to number of deaths per 100K residents:

Michigan map color-coded according to least and most opioid-related deaths per 100,000 residents. Detroit area is very darkly colored, indicating the largest number of deaths

Are you still keeping an eye on Detroit? Notice how the death rate is highest in that area even though the prescription rate is among the lowest. (I do wish that instead of min/max, there were intervals marked instead, perhaps correlating the color scale according to the national death rates from opioids or something.)

This map helps us instantly see that there isn’t a natural mapping of higher prescription rates to higher death rates. As a result, it’s easy to have questions arise. Imagine discussing this with students:

  1. How is the death rate higher even if the prescription rate is lower? Where are the drugs coming from?
  2. Based on what you see here, which counties should the state of Michigan’s public health services target for interventions? Which kinds of interventions would be suitable given the prescription and death rate maps?
  3. What recommendations would you make for your own county?
  4. What additional information would you need to be able to answer these questions?


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How Silicon Valley Influences Public School Curriculum

Natasha Singer writes today in the New York Times about the impact Silicon Valley is having in and on public education. This is part of an ongoing series that I’ve been waiting for some time for someone outside of the tech and education bubbles to bring up. This week’s article focuses on, the non-profit group supported by over $60M in industry support to bring its computer science curriculum into the nation’s schools.

Before you read the article, here is some of what isn’t covered in it. The article sidesteps the question of whether we need a nation of coders or merely a more diverse yet robustly-prepared niche pool. And it also doesn’t discuss whether current administration plans to curtail immigration (an outsized proportion of Silicon Valley executives being not born in the US) will create a gap that will need filling by US programmers — a scenario in which the industry might not need more people to do the work — which would be captured in labor statistics — but American-born people to do it — a nuance that would not be captured there).

It also does not raise whether we need a larger quantity of coders in the future, and I think that is critical to mention here before you read the article, because a big piece of the puzzle here is what our need really is, from a personal or industry perspective. How do we know that there’s a need for more programming? Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 Fastest Growing Occupations graph (click the link below if you find the graphic below too small to read):

Most of the jobs with the greatest predicted growth shown above are about health care, not technology. This complicates the perspective I often hear that tomorrow’s employees will be a nation of computer programming folks. So if the job of school is — as we’re hearing increasingly throughout conservatives’ redefinition of the purpose of K-12 and higher education — we should be infusing school with wind turbines (technicians for which have been predicted to be the largest-growing occupational sector) and vocationally-focused health care programs, not computer science, right?

If, as pundits say, we need coding for all because there is going to be an unfilled need in for computer science specialists in the future, why isn’t that need showing up in the statistics? (Here is where I pause to say that my personal take is that we all need just enough under-the-hood programming experience to know that there is code under the hood of the tools we use every day and to have some skill in making tweaks … so I don’t want you to think I’m being a Luddite. I’m more questioning whether Silicon Valley is starting to play an outsized role in influencing public perception of need.)

The other reality is that whether your district adopts GSuite (a tool most of us do love, to be honest), a curriculum (there’s a ton of great stuff in there, and the visual nature and incorporation of Disney characters really appeals to kids), or something else, American education is significantly changing due to Silicon Valley — what other industry is placing such a significant stamp on American education? And where are all the health care industries clamoring to plunk its money into related public education curriculum and training initiatives?

OK, enough preamble. Let’s delve into the article:

At a White House gathering of tech titans last week, Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, delivered a blunt message to President Trump on how public schools could better serve the nation’s needs. To help solve a “huge deficit in the skills that we need today,” Mr. Cook said, the government should do its part to make sure students learn computer programming.

“Coding,” Mr. Cook told the president, “should be a requirement in every public school.”

The Apple chief’s education mandate was just the latest tech company push for coding courses in schools. But even without Mr. Trump’s support, Silicon Valley is already advancing that agenda — thanks largely to the marketing prowess of, an industry-backed nonprofit group …

In a few short years, has raised more than $60 million from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Salesforce, along with individual tech executives and foundations. It has helped to persuade two dozen states to change their education policies and laws, Mr. Partovi said, while creating free introductory coding lessons, called Hour of Code, which more than 100 million students worldwide have tried.

Along the way, has emerged as a new prototype for Silicon Valley education reform: a social-media-savvy entity that pushes for education policy changes, develops curriculums, offers online coding lessons and trains teachers — touching nearly every facet of the education supply chain …

But’s multilevel influence machine also raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is swaying public schools to serve its own interests — in this case, its need for software engineers — with little scrutiny. “If I were a state legislator, I would certainly be wondering about motives,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University …

Mr. Partovi, 44, said he simply wanted to give students the opportunity to develop the same skills that helped him and his backers succeed …

Even so, he acknowledged some industry self-interest. “If you are running a tech company,” he said, “it’s extremely hard to hire and retain engineers.” is now one of the largest providers of free online coding lessons and more comprehensive computer science curriculums. It has also provided training workshops to more than 57,000 teachers, Mr. Partovi said.

The rise of coincides with a larger tech-industry push to remake American primary and secondary schools with computers and learning apps, a market estimated to reach $21 billion by 2020.

Last year, Apple rolled out a free app, called Swift Playgrounds, to teach basic coding in Swift, a programming language the company unveiled in 2014.

Last month, Apple introduced a yearlong curriculum for high schools and community colleges to teach app design in Swift. Apple has also supported by hosting the group’s popular Hour of Code events in its stores …

Together with local groups, Mr. Partovi said, and Microsoft have helped persuade 24 states to allow computer science to count toward math or science credits required for high school graduation. Along with groups like Black Girls CodeGirls Who Code and Latina Girls Code, has worked to make the subject accessible to a diverse group of students.

But the movement has also supported legislation that could give companies enormous sway in public schools, starting with kindergarten, with little public awareness.

The article continues for about 1000 more words after this excerpt, mostly discussing the legislative impact of Silicon Valley — sometimes with and sometimes without the direct support of Silicon Valley — on public education.

It’s also fascinating that this article runs contemporaneously with the ISTE conference but without mentioning it. On a somewhat tangential note, I’ve long been uncomfortable that so many ISTE sessions hinge on educators spending their own money to travel to a conference to do free promotion for a for-profit tech tool.

What do you think?

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What does the TechShop corporate strategy shift indicate?

Make has republished the letter TechShop CEO Dan Woods to his membership in which he announces a change in focus from standalone membership-driven makerspaces to a licensed model inside existing institutions like schools:

Today TechShop is making a fundamental change in how we do business by announcing our new partner licensing model. We are seeing a constant and increasing interest and demand from new markets eager to invest in makerspaces to transform their communities and to generate the kind of economic and social impact that TechShop has had in its existing markets.

The licensing and managed services strategy will allow us to co-develop new locations with strategic partners – corporations, universities, municipalities, real estate developers – and rapidly grow a network of stores across the country. Licensing will allow us to be more flexible in how we structure each new location and will enable us to access funds from a wider variety of sources.

While we are announcing this new strategy today, we have been using the model successfully internationally with partner-operated stores in France, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates with many more countries in development. The experience has shown us that this is a highly successful business model and hence, our intention to bring it back home to the US.

We will build on our 11 years of experience to provide a full spectrum of services, including licensing, design, staffing, equipment provisioning, management, and operating solutions to third parties, such as the aforementioned universities, foundations, municipalities, and corporations. We believe this is a smarter way for TechShop to leverage its IP and expertise to meet the accelerating demand for makerspaces around the world.

Sadly, in re-envisioning their model, they realized that the TechShop in Pittsburgh must close effective September 1.

This shift in focus is accompanied by reducing the “corporate staffing” by 50%.

Each of us is going to have our own reaction to this news. For me, the Pittsburgh closure is significant given how important the work in Pittsburgh has been for youth and teens: the Hive movement and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s leadership in makerspace development for youth and teens in libraries and schools among them.

But more importantly, I think, is the recognition that the standalone community or member-driven makerspace model is not proving to be as viable — at least as a commercial venture — as licensing the model in other organizations (particularly schools) might be.

I have long argued that, particularly in small and rural communities, the challenges of creating and sustaining a standalone building and organization is not feasible, but building upon existing organizations and community anchor institutions is. In those existing institutions, there is infrastructure (a board of trustees, space, utilities, etc.) that does not need to be created and managed from scratch, for example. And in many rural communities, shrinking populations mean there is unused space available.

I believe TechShop’s decision is a harbinger of changes to come and, particularly without the ravenous enthusiasm of Obama’s administration, is entering a new era. I don’t think community enthusiasm for creating things is fading; more, the fiscal realities of long-term sustainability in the standalone model may be coming into play.

What do you think?

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Our data literacy project featured in School Library Journal!

Thank you to Carli Spina and School Library Journal for featuring the work of our project alongside that of Eleanor Tutt and her team at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Catherine d’Ignazio and Samantha Viotty of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab. From Spina’s article:

Data is all around us, from the output of your Fitbit to interactive maps that track voters to the latest visualization of the New York Times front page. With the rise of mobile devices and wearable technology, data is more available to general audiences, and the amount being generated has also exploded …

One reason data literacy is vital is that “[i]n what some are calling a ‘post-truth world,’ students seem to focus on numbers a lot,” says Jo Angela Oehrli, learning librarian/children’s literature librarian at the University of Michigan Libraries. Students believe that if a number is connected to information, “it has to be a fact. But numbers are manipulated all of the time….We want students to have a tool kit of questions that they can use to question the data that is out there.”

To this end, Oehrli and Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, have been leading an IMLS-funded project called Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction. Through data literacy programs and data science training, librarians can ensure that students develop the skills to question and interpret data in the news or that they generate through their day-to-day activities. They might even set some students on the path toward a career in the expanding field of data science …

There are many resources that support teaching data literacy, no matter your background …

All of these tools can serve as the basis of a larger conversation about the role of data in public discussions, such as the way that schools use student data to make curriculum decisions or how local governments track traffic data to make decisions about signage and stoplights, and what questions students should ask when they encounter data and visualizations in their daily lives.

For those who want to go even further, the University of Michigan initiative Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction has brought together a group of data and curriculum design experts to create professional development resources for librarians.

Under the guidance of Fontichiaro and Oehrli, this team hosted a free virtual conference in the summer of 2016, and they are preparing for a second one scheduled for July 20–21 2017.

The team has also written two books due out this fall, Creating Data Literate Students, which collects chapters by the curriculum experts on teaching data literacy in the classroom, and Data Literacy in the Real World: Conversations and Case Studies (both Maize Books), which will collect approximately 40 case studies about data literacy. The duo is also presenting a poster about their work, “Real Strategies to Address Fake News: Librarians, Data Literacy, and the Post-Truth World,” at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference this month.

The overarching message from all and other data initiatives? Don’t be scared by it. The goal is that “high school librarians will start to feel comfortable talking about data literacy issues with their students and fellow teachers,” Oehrli says.

“So many librarians were humanities majors with little exposure to data, and so many classroom teachers think of data in terms of test scores,” adds Fontichiaro. “By focusing on high-impact strategies, we want librarians and teachers to feel empowered by data, not victimized by it. Our early efforts show that a little knowledge has significant impact.”

You can read the entire article here. By the way, you can catch Catherine and Sam’s presentation on the easy-to-use data analysis tools at if you tune into the closing keynote of the 4T Data Literacy Conference on Friday, July 21. Check out the schedule and register here!

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Library 2.017 Presentation: Four Out of Five Dentists Say Coca-Cola Cures Cancer!: Data Literacy Strategies to Help Patrons Identify Fake – or Just Bad – Information

Hello! Thanks to Steve Hargadon for encouraging me to participate in today’s Library 2.017 conference on digital literacy and fake news with a short presentation on data literacy strategies. My slide deck is here, and you can view the archived recording (including getting caught with a stats error myself!) here.

I hope you’ll continue this conversation by registering for the 4T Data Literacy conference online July 20-21. You can learn more here or download our flyer to share with others.

4TDL flyer 11may2017

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Registration open for 4T Data Literacy conference July 20-21!

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End-of-year maker reflections

Photo of a line-up of toolbox tools - public domain from Pixabay.comI’m noodling these days on the theme of program evaluation — those times when we step aside and take stock of what we’ve done, what we’re planning to do, where we’re succeeding, and where we’re failing. It’s also a time to really step back and see if the PR/marketing/branding/lingo we’re engaging in matches the work that we’re doing.

Here are some things I’m thinking about:

In school makerspaces (K-12 and college), how do we grow the skills of returning students even as a  new batch of beginners may come to our school each year?

What do we want people to know and be able to do? This is a question borrowed from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design that feels resonant here. A recent visitor from the maker movement in China said to a group of us last week, and I paraphrase, “In the U.S., people are very focused on ‘how to use a 3D printer’ or ‘how to use a laser cutter.’ You should be thinking about how you grow a business or make a product.” Now, I’m not an entrepreneurial maker, and I know that while a small slice of our makers will become that, what is our purpose? It’s not learning tools (after all, our predecessors didn’t walk around bragging about their mastery of hammers and screwdrivers) … what is this skill development leading to?

Building on the statement above, how are libraries and librarians supporting entrepreneurship related to making (and not to making) in their communities? How can our role as information sherpas position us well to help folks track down the research, paperwork, and intellectual property questions that will help them grow?

What really is the role of human workers in U.S. manufacturing moving forward? The maker movement is full of narratives about redesigning small batch manufacturing, turning assembly line workers into entrepreneurs, or using Kickstarter to become business owners. To be successful and financially competitive, this might mean outsourcing manufacturing out of the U.S. What is realistic to expect? Who are our models? And how much of manufacturing has been automated to the point that expecting job expansion is no longer viable?

For children, what is the role of agency in making? Is it just exposure to tools? to toys that let them tinker with the “aha” moment of STEM when a true STEM career has so many other elements that compose 99% of the STEM professional’s day? Or should we be pushing them — particularly in public libraries — to accelerate or ramp up or further develop skills?

Maybe said differently … particularly in school and public libraries, to what degree is maker programming entertainment vs. informal learning?

How are makerspaces or maker programs planning for long-term sustainability? What kinds of planning and administrative skills do folks in libraries and schools (and other spaces, but those are the two areas I think about most) need to have to move from wowing initial funders to sustaining growth over time?

How do we demonstrate success? Anecdotes? Head counts?

What were the cool hip things in the early maker movement that are now ready to be phased out or replaced with other things now that we have a better handle on what is novelty vs. what is deeply engaging? Maybe said differently … why do people return over and over to use sewing machines more than they return to use 3D printers?

How “accountable” should schools-based maker programs be to achieving a set of standards versus staying open-ended? How does that impact long-term support and/or funding?

I’m wondering — what kinds of program evaluation/measurement are you doing related to maker work in your space?

(Cross-published from MakerBridge; image – public domain via

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