Getting educated with open data

In a recent letter from the Prime Minister in the UKto government departments, David Cameron reaffirmed the commitment towards opening up public data that was initiated by the previous government in July, 2009 and swiftly followed by the publication of the data.gov.uk open public data catalogue in November, 2009. Today, data.gov.uk catalogues data from a wide variety of public sources, from local councils and government departments, to universities and schools, as well as health and police authorities.

From public statistics to open data

It’s still early days for the open public data movement, but continued support for it will in part be dependent on third party engagement with, and exploitation of, open public data. Public statistics have played an important role in academic research, particularly in the social sciences, for many years; but how can academics start to engage more widely with the newly opened up tranches of public data as part of their teaching and learning activities?

Developing skills using real world data

One route to using public data is as grist to the mill for skills development in statistics and data handling. It’s all to easy to fall in to the trap of teaching statistical methods using the same old sample data, year on year. So one approach is to use current, authentic, real world data sets as the basis for such teaching.

There are three immediate benefits to this: firstly, students are exposed to data that has contemporary significance and a real world context; secondly, students will learn where to find official sources of public data, and the range of public data sets that are now available; thirdly, in working with real world data sets, students will be exposed to the very real problems associated with data quality and data cleanliness that can prevent effective reuse of data in the absence of effective data handling skills.

Combining data to create meaning

One of the great promised benefits of open data is the ability to combine datasets from across different sources; as more and more datasets are published, the number of combinations of possible datastets explodes. Although not all combinations are likely to be meaningful, exploring the combination space may provide new insights. What happens if you start to combine hospital admission data with crime data, for example? Or what happens if you look at traffic monitoring data in the context of local air quality measurements?

Data journalism in practice

Through working with real data sets, activities cast into problem based learning activities provide the opportunity for student to do “real worK”. Why shouldn’t courses on data journalism result in students doing “real” data journalism, rather than replicating worked textbook examples?

In technical subjects such as computing and ICT, the publication of open public data provides a rich source of data that cries out for re-presentation in more natural and visually informative ways than static data tables. I would claim that being able to render geographical information on a digital map using openly available technologies is a key information skill for today’s graduates.

Mapping the data

One very popular “mashup” pattern is to take location based data and render it on a map, often in combination with complementary data sets; what might plotting the location of and usage of rural carparks, the location and emptying schedule of dog waste and litter bins in combination with details of public footpaths reveal, for example?

What could you do with the data?

The wealth of geo-located data that is now available on public data stores provides case examples with which to develop such skills. Working with data at local level, using local council datastores and datasets, can also serve to promote civic engagement, raise awareness of local issues and even contribute to the development of an informed and critical citizenry through the undergraduate teaching process.

We have a range of open data, and we have just opened research data as well, check it out here.

Now it’s your turn!

Thanks to Tony Hirst for this insightful blogpost on how open data can be used in education, particularly in higher education. Tony Hirst is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Systems at The Open University and regular blogger at OUseful.info. He tweets at @psychemedia.

Are you a student or lecturer who’s curious about open data? What do you think of this post? Have you already used open data in your research, we’d love to know, leave us a comment below (the more weblinks to the data and visualisations the better!)

Would you like to write a guest post on how open data can be used? At the moment, we’re particularly keen on how open data can be used for visualising what to do in the summer, but if you have a different idea, do let us know either by leaving a comment below or emailing us.

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