Open Data at Your Library

Data Equity for Main Street --


More than 16,000 central and branch libraries dot rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States. These are more than just buildings and more than places to check out a book. Often, they are inextricably bound to local civic life, offering a trusted space for digital literacy classes, community meeting spaces, job training, literacy programs, maker spaces and citizenship information and training. Of Americans 16 and over, 46 percent have visited a library in the last twelve months. Today, most libraries offer digital literacy training that helps community members find and evaluate the information they discover online. In doing so, these libraries are responding to public demand: 78 percent of Americans think that libraries "should definitely" "teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones and apps" and roughly the same percentage believe that libraries should "should definitely" "teach patrons about protecting their privacy and security online." Expanding the resources of libraries so that they can help patrons unlock the benefits of open data is a natural extension of the decades-long commitment by libraries to increase digital equity.

Our Challenge:

As the open data movement matures, it is critical that we do not create greater digital inequities by assuming that everyone and every organization will have the same time, skills and resources to invest in learning how to find and use this data. Because open data can have transformative impacts on communities and governments and can spawn new, profitable businesses, we must ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the benefits that it creates. Organizations with large budgets and individuals with advanced technical skills will know how to find and use this information to their advantage. Without a sustained effort to train those without skills in finding and using open data, we risk creating even greater information asymmetry than exists today between those organizations and individuals that are digitally included and those that are digitally excluded. Given that public librarians are the only group of information science professionals consistently embedded in urban and rural, large and small communities across the country, and that the public views libraries as trusted institutions, it makes sense to integrate open data training and knowledge in these important community institutions. By empowering librarians with the knowledge to find and use this data, and creating tools for libraries to teach everyone in their community to find and use this data, this project builds the foundation for communities in which everyone - not just a select few who are already knowledgeable and skilled - shares in the benefit and promise of open data.

Our Solution:

Together with a diverse team of public librarians and civic technologists across California and Washington, our project team at the California State Library and Washington State's Technology Services Agency developed two open data curricula:

1. Train-the-Trainer: A train-the-trainer approach for professional librarians will enable them to develop the skills they need to help patrons find and use relevant local, regional, state and national open data resources. This curriculum will also underscore the importance of providing feedback to government agencies that produce data in order to help improve the quality and relevance of data they release. In addition, the curriculum will serve as a collection development tool, helping libraries identify and maintain these free resources. Please note that much of this material has been updated in the online course. However, you may use or modify any of the original materials if it is helpful.

2. Class Training Materials: Libraries can add these hands-on open data lesson plans to existing digital and information literacy programs or offer them as stand-alone classes or workshops. These lessons help members of the community and community organizations learn what open data is, how to find it, easy ways to use it, and why it is important to provide feedback to the governments and organizations that created the data. These lesson plans focus on where to find data, how to leverage existing tools and where to find potential partners that local organizations can contact if they need help analyzing or visualizing data in different ways.

Online Curriculum

Course 1 Learn the definition of open data, determine whether or not datasets meet open standards, brainstorm questions that could be answered with open data, and learn how to find data offered at the local, state, and federal levels.

Course 2 Learn how to determine the quality of the data you are studying and learn about search strategies that will help you use open data to answer questions.

Course 3 Review different types of data visualizations and create your own chart and map.

Course 4 Learn more about analyzing data and also how to help shape the future of open data through advocacy and by providing feedback to data providers.


    These are slides our team originally created for teaching this course. There are some differences in content between these slides and the online course, mainly in response to feedback from alpha and beta testers. Some instructors may wish to pull certain slides, particularly the ones designed to support localized content, and use them in their classes.


    These are handouts our team created for the alpha and beta testers. Handout 2 and 5 are included in the online course as well as several other handouts that are new to the online version.

    Results may come in a number of forms: open meetings in small towns that use open data to 'set the table' for discussions; community organizations in cities that use a combination of local, state and federal open data resources to advocate for their neighborhoods; and libraries that maintain a collection of open data resources for patrons to access. All of our curricula will also include lessons in how to provide feedback to the governments and non-profit organizations that publish open data, many of which need a more comprehensive way to include all communities in their open data release policies. For example, Washington State's Open Data Initiative has made available over 900 free datasets with over 158 million rows, but has had difficulty fulfilling a statutory mandate to develop processes to provide the information that people most want and need. This project will provide the opportunity for local libraries to become a key part of the open data feedback loop, increasing the diversity and relevancy of the types and formats of information that publishers release.

    Libraries are not community centers, but they are centers of our communities. As John Palfrey describes in BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, libraries have an intellectual/educational mission - led by trained information professionals - that differentiates them from community centers. This is precisely why they are the right organizations to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to take advantage of open data.

    Project Team

    • Anne Neville (Dir., CA Research Bureau, CA State Library): Built and led open data program, (National Broadband Map); builds partnerships across sectors, 15 yrs of digital equity work.
    • Will Saunders (WA State's "Open Data Guy"): Expands open data across WA; as State Broadband Manager, created program for students to use open data.

    Briefings and Presentations