Linda Poon at CityLab: “In recent years, dozens of U.S. cities have released pools of public data. It’s an effort to improve transparency and drive
But what often gets lost in the conversation is the idea of how public data should be collected, managed, and disseminated so that it serves everyone—rather than just a few residents—and so that people’s privacy and data rights are protected. That’s where librarians come in.
“As far as how private and public data should be handled, there isn’t really a strong model out there,” says Curtis Rogers, communications director for the Urban Library Council (ULC), an association of leading libraries across North America. “So to have the library as the local institution that is the most trusted, and to give them that responsibility, is a whole new paradigm for how data could be handled in a local government.”
In fact, librarians have long been advocates of digital inclusion and literacy. That’s why, last month, ULC launched a new initiative to give public libraries a leading role in a future with artificial intelligence. They kicked it off with a working group meeting in Washington, D.C., where representatives from libraries in cities like Baltimore, Toronto, Toledo, and Milwaukee met to exchange ideas on how to achieve that through education and by taking on a larger role in data governance.
It’s a broad initiative, and Rogers says they are still in the beginning stages of determining what that role will ultimately look like. But the group will discuss how data should be organized and managed, hash out the potential risks of artificial intelligence, and eventually develop a field-wide framework for how libraries can help drive equitable public data policies in cities.
Already, individual libraries are involved with their city’s data. Chattanooga Public Library (which wasn’t part of the working group, but is a member of ULC) began hosting the city’s open data portal in 2014, turning a traditionally print-centered institution into a community data hub. Since then, the portal has added more than 280 data sets and garnered hundreds of thousands of page views, according to a report for the 2018 fiscal year….
The Toronto Public Library is also in a unique position because it may soon sit inside one of North America’s “smartest” cities. Last month, the city’s board of trade published a 17-page report titled “BiblioTech,” calling for the library to oversee data governance for all smart city projects.
It’s a grand example of just how big the potential is for public libraries. Ryan says the proposal remains just that at the moment, and there are no details yet on what such a model would even look like. She adds that they were not involved in drafting the proposal, and were only asked to provide feedback. But the library is willing to entertain the idea.
Such ambitions would be a large undertaking in the U.S., however, especially for smaller libraries that are already understaffed and under-resourced. According to ULC’s survey of its members, only 23 percent of respondents said they have a staff person designated as the AI lead. A little over a quarter said they even have AI-related educational programming, and just 15 percent report being part of any local or national initiative.
Debbie Rabina, a professor of library science at Pratt Institute in New York, also cautions that putting libraries in charge of data governance has to be carefully thought out. It’s one thing for libraries to teach data literacy and privacy, and to help cities disseminate data. But to go further than that—to have libraries collecting and owning data and to have them assessing who can and can’t use the data—can lead to ethical conflicts and unintended consequences that could erode the public’s trust….(More)”.