We are living in the greatest information revolution in human history. Even greater than the advent of the printing press.
It’s estimated that 1.7 MB of data are created every second for every person on earth—that’s the equivalent of 7 billion Gutenberg bible’s worth of information created every second. Every day, more than 300 billion emails are sent. Google processes 6 billion requests every 24 hours. YouTube watchers consume 4,333,560 videos a minute. In total, some 2.5 exabytes of data is generated every day. 1 exabyte is equivalent to 3000 times the content of the Library of Congress. No wonder some data scientists have conjectured that 90% of all the data in the history of the world was generated in the last two years.
And these numbers are growing exponentially. Today, 5 billion people worldwide have the most powerful information engine in history in their pocket. And every swipe, search, text, keystroke, click, like, and purchase creates more data. Everything you do on your phone or computer—and we haven’t even factored in the Internet of Things!—creates more data and more information. Every person with a smartphone can access more information than anyone in history until now.
And yet, a recent poll showed less trust in science and facts than in the days before computers and the internet. 43 million Americans have low literacy skills, and 8.4 million Americans are classified as functionally illiterate. In the past ten years, average reading proficiency scores across the country have declined. In the face of a worldwide pandemic, there are millions of people who seem not to understand—or trust—the basic tenets of science. For the last decade, there’s a growing tsunami of disinformation that people seem incapable of deciphering. Even though the amount of data is growing, Peter Aiken and Todd Harbour write in their important and illuminating book, data literacy seems to have stagnated. When there is more data, more facts, more information—more knowledge—instantly available than at any time in history, millions of people depend on intuition, superstition, and conspiracy theories.
Ok, but first, a basic question. What is data?
Data are the units of information used in the digital economy. In science, data is a body of facts, but in the digital world it is bits and bytes of information which may be true or not. As Aiken and Harbour note, data is unique (it keeps its value), non-depletable (you can’t use it up), non-degradable (it’s accessible forever), regenerative (it can be used over and over), and its cost diminishes with use. What oil was to the industrial age, data is to the information age.
But people are afraid of data. One study showed that more Americans would rather pay their bills than work with data. In the 21st century, data can and should enable people to make better and more informed decisions about every aspect of their lives. It should improve productivity and competitiveness. It should make us all better citizens. Lack of data literacy makes us susceptible to manipulation, misinformation, and disinformation. It is a threat to our society and to democracy itself. Part of citizenry in the 21st century should be data and media literacy.
Data—your data—is what makes billions of dollars for the platform companies. Your data, every bit of it, has value and it’s making them rich. Online platforms and providers collect just about everything they can about you and analyze it for a variety of purposes: to optimize engagement (keeping you online); to personalizing advertising (selling you things); to license to third parties (to sell you more things); to predict your behavior and that of others. There’s nothing too small for them to know. Every second you’re online or on your phone, you’re giving your data to someone who is monetizing it. Shoshana Zuboff has written that we are living in the age of surveillance capitalism.
But the problem is, masses of people are not aware of this. Millions of us have traded security and privacy for convenience. That’s a dangerous bargain. It opens us to manipulation, deception, and outright piracy. Hacks and ransomware attacks depend in part on data illiteracy.
So what can you do? For one, be vigilant. Distrust and verify. Be careful about giving access to your data. Be skeptical of any requests for information. Don’t automatically give apps access to your location, your pictures, your contacts. Do so only when it makes sense. Why give a restaurant app access to your camera? You shouldn’t really give anyone full access to your contacts. Don’t open texts from people you don’t know. Everything you say or do online pretty much exists forever, so think twice about what you post or tweet.
Becoming data literate is not just about protecting your privacy and security. It’s about protecting our democracy and your participation in it. “Governments are instituted,” the Declaration says, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Don’t consent to giving away your information and your agency. Don’t consent to being fooled by the disinformationists. Use data to make better choices, choices that are both in your interest and the interest of the nation. Data is democratic. It’s available to all of us. Use it wisely—and don’t let others misuse it.
Richard Stengel is on-air analyst at MSNBC, (Former) Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs & Editor TIME, (Author) Information Wars and Mandela’s Way (more at) https://richardstengel.com.
Below are a couple of talks that I have given on the topic.
“Literacy” is far more than the ability to read and write. Its definition implies much about our capacity to obtain and master knowledge generally and offers an opportunity and grounds for the basis of mastery. Data Literacy provides an amazing framework that will allow a mobile data spreader to move from a crawler to a walking knowledge worker to a running data professional should they so choose. Another masterpiece from the visionary that taught us that data is ‘soil’ not ‘oil’!
Michael Leahy Maryland Secretary of Technology
Finally! A book that explains Data Literacy in simple terms providing real-world context to a concept defined and debated by data professionals, executives (CDOs), business analysts, academics, and consultants. It provides relatable examples for everyone to identify bad data behaviors and learn good data hygiene. It presents clear and actionable activities to raise data acumen through tiered teaching curriculum and phased organizational actions. It is a must-read for executives and managers responsible for enterprise data management programs and strongly encouraged for all adults, especially parents.
Maria Voreh KPMG, Director, Fed CIO Advisory, former CDO FBI
“Data.” The word itself places a different image in your mind today than it did 20 years ago, which makes sense. Data is different. Aiken and Harbour present a thorough view of how data has become an anthropological movement and what organizations and individuals need to do. Data has entered all aspects of society. Aiken and Harbour present a thorough treatment of what you need to look out for and what to do about data in all of its forms.
John Ladley Thought leader and author of Data Governance: How to Design, Deploy, and Sustain an Effective Data Governance Program 2nd Edition
Making good decisions about anything takes good data. This book is a great reference for those who are seeking to understand the critical role of data in the evolving landscape of technology, business, governments, and your own day-to-day life.
Suzette Kent CEO Kent Advisory Services, former Federal Chief Information Officer/OMB
A thought-provoking look into the vast impacts of data illiteracy coupled with a practical approach to maximizing data’s value through improved data literacy.
Catheryn Clay Doss CDO Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, former CDO CapitalOne