The existence of what we call ‘the Data Matrix,’ is the primary reason that every citizen should want all citizens to become more data literate. The Data Matrix is our name for all unknown/unknowable/opaque data exchanges. These systems disproportionally impact those who have the most to loose (information that has been historically viewed as private and constitutionally protected) and yet are also the most unaware of its inherent danger to their freedom as citizens. Today, however, nothing is off limits, and nothing is stopping surveillance capitalists from accessing every part of our lives. In this we see dangers of differently and increasingly divided societies unable to cope with events. Understanding not just that citizen data is already being used to influence citizen behavior, but that criminal elements are refining attacks on citizen data–gives the vast majority pause and a brief thoughtful moment the next time data is requested. Sadly, we see little effort to make things better; instead, we see citizens surrendering more personal data without any idea what the consequences are. We witness appalling data practices, a growing dependency on technology, and a ruthless data industry that tracks every aspect of our daily lives.
Predictions were that 2020 would be remembered as the year when artificial intelligence and machine learning ran out of usable data! It is true that 2020 did suffer the accumulated data debit as algorithm after algorithm fell victim to lack-of-training-data-sets that severely limited their value! Advances are unattainable due to resource allocation imbalance. All this may be pure applesauce (to quote a notable). 2020’s pandemic (more than 430,000 worldwide deaths so far) will resonate louder than the training-data shortage but a strong case can be made that the shortage will have a far greater negative citizen impact!
The pandemic revealed a previously unknown weakness in society–a tangible lack of data literacy. We saw the impact of this illiteracy during the early stages of pandemic: too many citizens could not use data to make decisions. Entire countries demonstrated they were incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy, and their leaders were willing to make ultimately dangerous decisions using unreliable or insufficient data and an utter lack of consequential understanding. When important individuals cannot understand the ways data can be helpful in a pandemic and the general state of society suffers from wide spread data illiteracy, the unfortunate results are evident for all to witness. As a result, governments could not communicate the rationale for important programs such as social distancing, etc.
Like the pandemic, data literacy is not constrained to any geography, social class, or job. Data illiteracy affects everyone, politicians, corporations, the general public, and their daily behaviors showed just how widespread is the problem. There is a danger of not preparing citizens to live in a digital society, and data literacy and its principles reduce risk and benefit for all citizens. In short, citizens must be data literate. And when citizens are data literate, each citizen becomes part of a frontline defense for the ethical use of data. But if the citizens do not understand data and the consequences of their digital actions, the balance of societal power shifts to the data literate at the expense of everyone else.
Data nerds and others who are data literate have a duty to help the data illiterate to become data literate. We offer a framework to focus efforts, and we discuss issues related to increasing data literacy across the nation. The effort to develop and improve data literacy is no small feat by any measure and will take years to accomplish. However, we believe this effort is essential to a long-term and stable society.
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