Why Big Data Matters to Libraries

by Christina Wilson, Head Editor of INALJ Alberta and INALJ Manitoba

Why Big Data Matters to Libraries

ChristinaWilsonEarlier this week I attended a lecture at Red Deer College as part of their “Perspectives on the World” series. I was invited to represent Red Deer Public Library, a co-sponsor of the series.

The topic was “Big Data” and the engaging speaker was Nora Young, a Canadian newscaster and author. If this name is new to you, then I urge you to listen to her program “Spark”, which is heard from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), the Canadian equivalent of National Public Radio. “Spark” episodes can be downloaded from ITunes or heard on the CBC website (www.cbc.ca). During the course of several broadcasts in March, Nora examined, various issues surrounding Big Data, both positive and negative. Her overarching thesis is that our digital travels results in massive amounts of data being generated all around us, being collected and then being used by all kinds of groups and for a variety of purposes. While privacy is an issue, it’s not the solution to stay safe and in control of our own “data exhaust”, her term for the data each of us generates through Facebook updates, Tweets, Flickr tags and other digital travels. We’re in this world and need to learn to function in it to get value from Big Data but not be negatively impacted. Via Spark and her recent book, entitled “The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us” Young argues that everyone needs to wrestle with issues like privacy and data control now so that all of us, not just governments and corporations, can harness the power of big data.

Herein, lays the role that Young identifies for libraries, especially public libraries. She loudly and proudly stated that she’s a “big fan” of public libraries. Libraries can help individuals understand this new digital realm. Ms. Young suggests that libraries can bridge what she sees as a persistent disconnect between the general population and the knowledge of what happens with data and how it can be used. Ms. Young clearly stated that this is a role for public libraries, who hold the public’s trust, even above governments and corporations. Our involvement and success in this realm adds continuing value to libraries in anticipating needs and then providing the community based service. In her book and newscasts, Nora argues that if we wrestle now with issues like privacy and data control, we can harness the power of that data. Libraries are the best agency for helping people better understand data generation, provide scalable norms for how to function in a digital world with a level of privacy and safety, yet learn how to use the various tools. In other words, libraries can help people decide what kind of data world they wish to function in by helping them to become more digitally savvy and engaged as citizens.

Ms. Young recommended that people actually write their local representatives and demand public policies that encourage new customs and ways to help navigate the new world, with some protections as well. This goes beyond anti-spam laws and extends to the ubiquitous use of tracking technology, which can be helpful (think of the value of Google Maps’ traffic views during rush hour) but also intrusive (those nuisance pop-ups, especially when searching for commercial goods). Nora Young gave an extreme example that occurred recently in the Ukraine, at the start of the revolution. The government used tracking technology with crowd tagging to identify bystanders who were then charged as criminals, just for being bystanders. “The Virtual Self” is a compelling read with an important take away for libraries seeking to show their value and relevance in our brave, new world of Big Data. Spark continues to be a great resource for tracking technology trends and their impact on our digital lives. Both are great resources for 21st Century libraries and their staff.

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