Reflections on the Open Government Partnership Summit: Let’s talk about literacy


This is the first in a series of “What We Heard” posts from the Applied Research Lab with reflections from the Open Government Partnership Summit 2019.

What were people talking about at the OGP Summit?

In its variety of forms, technology was at the center of many discussions at the recent global Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit 2019 in Ottawa. We heard, for example, from the NGO, Crude Accountability, about processes of translating “kitchen table knowledge into data” to support community activism. We heard about the Government of Canada’s Algorithmic Impact Assessment tool to help assess the risks associated with automated decision making. We heard a panel address the question, “How Ready is Government for Artificial Intelligence?”.

If conversations at the OGP Summit are any indication, digital infrastructures and technology such as those identified above are having an impact on the future priorities and direction of open government.

Issues of literacy appeared consistently throughout many of these conversations. The focus of the day-long “Making Data Work for Open Government” unconference was on building data literacy in various contexts and making data more accessible to those without relevant formal education. We learned about efforts from the Caribbean Open Institute on digital capacity building for young women in Haiti trying to enter the job market. During a session on “Fostering a Democratic Digital Space”, the issue of media literacy was a center point of discussions around misinformation in online spaces, such as social media.

As government adopts more technological solutions, efforts to promote media, digital, and data literacy will be an important part of open government.

What kinds of literacy should we care about?

Before addressing notable findings and outcomes from these conversations, I’d like to first unpack some different types of literacy and what they mean. Traditionally, literacy is about comprehension and critical thinking. Beyond just learning to read, literacy also encompasses the ability to understand, ask questions, and present arguments based on written material (Combes, 2010). Throughout the OGP Summit, we heard about the following types of literacy:

  • Media literacy: Media literacy is more than just the ability to interact with different types of media. According to MediaSmarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, media literacy includes skills relating to access, analysis, evaluation, and production of media (MediaSmarts, 2017). Media literacy also includes a fundamental acknowledgement that media convey social and political messages that can be interpreted differently by different audiences (ibid.).

  • Digital literacy: Digital literacy builds off of media literacy. As defined by MediaSmarts, digital literacy includes competencies across three domains (MediaSmarts, 2019):
    • Use: addresses the technical capabilities required to interact with computers and the internet,
    • Understand: includes skills required to think critically about digital media, leading to more informed decisions about life online, and
    • Create: addresses the ability to generate content and communications using digital tools.
  • Data literacy: Finally, data literacy refers to the ability to read, work with, analyze, and argue with data (Bhargava and D’Ignazio, 2015). Data literacy has been described as an essential skill in our current knowledge economy, as data-driven processes are applied across many sectors and disciplines (Risdale et al., 2015).

Why does this matter for open government?

These various forms of literacy will be an important part of ensuring that government is open and accountable to its citizens. To be open, government needs to be able to communicate clearly with the public about its decision making processes and outcomes. The public, in turn, needs to be able to critically interrogate this decision making and hold government to account for the impacts. If we assume that our governments will increasingly turn towards digitalized, data-driven solutions (we’ll need another blog post, or maybe a book, to unpack the pros and cons of this approach), then these responsibilities of the government and of the public may become more challenging. Open government depends on both the politicians’ and public officials’ ability to communicate clearly about how the technology that they use works, and citizens’ ability to engage with these technologies and critically interrogate their impacts. To accomplish these tasks, government and civil society need to be equipped with skills in media, digital, and data literacy.

Issues surrounding literacy are connected to one of the key themes of this OGP Summit: inclusion. Without increased efforts to promote media, digital, and data literacy across a citizenry, a government’s use of technology may only be applicable and comprehensible to the well-educated who are in positions of privilege. All citizens should be able to understand what their government is doing, not just the “digital natives” or those with a degree in Computer Science.

Let’s consider, for example, the scary world of predictive policing. Imagine that a local government is implementing a predictive policing algorithm that intakes a variety of data sources and outputs the probabilities of future crime across neighbourhoods. To evaluate and correct for potential bias in this system, public officials need to be able to understand how different data inputs are combined and weighted to generate these probabilities. What information does a dataset on past crime contain and how might it disproportionately impact future policing of certain demographic groups? The algorithm behind predictive policing in LA, for example, has been criticised for exacerbating racially-biased policing due the underlying dataset that shows how people of colour are more often arrested for the same crimes as those committed by white people. Those being policed should be able to understand the basis on which policing decisions are made, and how to appeal to decisions that may be incorrect.

The following questions illustrate additional cases where media, digital, and data literacy are important to open government:

  • How can citizens meaningfully engage with each other through online discussion platforms to provide feedback to government on policy questions?
  • How can politicians and public officials clearly communicate with citizens about the use of data in government decision-making?
  • How can citizens identify misinformation online while attempting to educate themselves on key political issues?
  • How can public officials engage with private sector vendors to purchase artificial intelligence solutions that are appropriate and unbiased for the use-case at hand?

In addition, the concept of data literacy often comes up conversations on open data. For example, students from Chile and Mexico sharing their lessons learned from participating in the Open Data International Rally highlighted the need to “make data friendly” for it to be used by non-data specialists. As a key pillar of many open government initiatives, open data should be complemented with data literacy for citizens, to enable meaningful engagement with and via data.

Looking ahead

We need to build literacy in its many forms in both government and the public. We can benefit from the valuable work of educators by tailoring existing pedagogical approaches to contexts such as government institutions or civil society organizations. We can benefit from the experience of those in the media and technology sectors by drawing on their knowledge and making it accessible to more general audiences. Moving forwards, we need to think about the core competencies that different stakeholders will require to be considered media, digitally, or data “literate”. Will a 5th grader need to learn about detecting bot-generated content online? Will government policy analysts need to learn how to programmatically analyze qualitative feedback from citizens?

At OpenNorth, our work on data literacy (see here for an example) has pointed us towards some great resources for further reading on this subject. The following list includes sources referenced in this article and additional sources that we believe to be valuable:


Bhargava, R., & D’Ignazio, C. (2015). Designing tools and activities for data literacy learners. In Workshop on Data Literacy, Webscience. Retrieved from

Combes, B. (2010). How much do traditional literacy skills count? Literacy in the 21st century & reading from the screen.

MediaSmarts. (2017, January 19). Media Literacy Fundamentals. Retrieved from

MediaSmarts. (2019, February 20).Digital Literacy Fundamentals. Retrieved from

Prado, J. C., & Marzal, M. Á. (2013). Incorporating data literacy into information literacy programs: Core competencies and contents. Libri, 63(2), 123-134. Retrieved from

Ridsdale et al. (2015). Strategies and best practices for data literacy education: Knowledge synthesis report. Retrieved from

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