Big Data Literacy: A New Dimension of the “Digital Divide”


The Internet constitutes a core infrastructure, especially in the western societies. The usage of this infrastructure has changed and developed significantly since its invention – from primarily being a communication infrastructure that provided access to static information, to becoming a global platform, to full-scale applications implemented as services. In recent years, we have seen a massive increase in using the internet as a mean to collect and provide data. Social media platforms and search engines assemble, apply and sell data about their users and their usage of these data-driven services; online shops use data to recommend products to buyers; and public organizations, such as municipalities, are to a greater extent making data available through open data interfaces that allow businesses to build services on top of these data sources. But, it requires IT expertise for the data to be made accessible [1].

Similar to roads and other physical infrastructures, data is now considered an enabler for societal actors and companies. We are taught, and thus know, how to navigate the streets. Assuming that data continues to develop as an infrastructure on which services are provided, we all arguably need to learn how to “drive on data.”

The term ‘data literacy’ describes the ability to derive meaningful information from data. Data literacy has gradually emerged from the “data revolution discussions” as policymakers, experts and advocates has begun to consider what it would take to enable citizens and organizations to explore and thus make better use of the data available to them. Moreover, the OECD has highlighted the important role that infomediaries (e.g. civic society, media and developers) play in the ongoing process of making sense of and creating value from “raw” data, as well as helping to steer the direction of how data is accountably collected, analyzed and applied [2]. More concretely, we have for instance observed a growing number of open data and civic technology advocates that organize hackathons to teach technical skills to the participants, enabling them to explore and work creatively with data often for social good; data journalists who report on interesting stories based on data; and data providers who induce a new level of transparency; and policymakers that support agendas that promote more technical curricula and coding programs.

Despite the increasing number of “bottom-up” initiatives that aim to tackle and improve the skills of the public, (big) data literacy is still a prominent barrier for many organizations. The lack of data literacy prevents them from “unlocking their data potential” [3]. The notion of “the digital divide” has been used to describe the gap between those who can access and engage with digital technologies and those who can’t [4]. The era of Big Data thus creates a new dimension of the digital divide: those who can make sense of and engage with data, and those who can’t. In order to prevent this growing dimension of the digital divide, it thus becomes important to question how we can engage in “infrastructuring” to further make data a public good.

Our research focuses on how we can develop tools and techniques that enable small and medium-sized organizations to explore the innovative potential of big data. By working closely with industry, we experiment with and aim to better understand how we can represent big data in design processes, in ways that enable “non-IT experts” to talk about and through data, to further be able to explore data’s innovative potential [5].

Knowledge sharing is key! We are therefore very interested in hearing more about other research projects that:

  • try to tackle the challenge of representing and visualizing Big data to groups/teams consisting of people with diverse backgrounds
  • discuss how we can make data a design material, which can engage people in the design of digital systems and data-driven services – and ideally the underlying data infrastructures
  • experiment with ways to enhance Big Data literacy for “non-IT experts”

There might also be aspects that are interesting and relevant to our research, but which is not reflected in the list of topics above. Either way, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Cathrine Seidelin

University of Copenhagen


Cathrine Seidelin