Use Data to Empower Your Community

Travel Award Runner up submission post!

Use Data to Empower Your Community by Mary Bakija

The amount of water that rushed into Brooklyn Public Library’s Coney Island branch during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is hard to imagine, but photos taken soon after the storm show its power — books strewn across floors that had yet to completely drain, chairs and tables toppled. Six branches in that system lost more than 75,000 books, magazines, and DVDs, and repairs cost around $10 million. Coney Island Library finally reopened about a year later, but it’s still in the same location, still vulnerable to future storms.

Sandy is a powerful example of why sustainability planning must be linked to libraries of all kinds, and in all parts of the country where a variety of climate issues may have an impact. Immediately following Sandy, New York City government discussed options and began plans to protect the city from storms and rising sea levels. But now, nearly seven years later, talk has faded to the background, little work has been done, and cultural institutions like Coney Island Library remain susceptible to harm. But there are ways those institutions can empower local communities that rely on them to help push for change.

Because also since Sandy, there’s been a growing call for open access to government data, and cities like New York have created websites where the public can view and download datasets. (Some cities have even arranged to have their libraries host that data, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) Though data should always be approached critically, with ample consideration to what’s missing and how and why they were collected, there are opportunities for communities to use this kind of information to communicate ideas and motivate action. And libraries can help show them how.

For some, hearing about the impacts of climate change may not be as powerful as seeing it visualized. Data visualizations like the one shown above, which uses NYC datasets to show some of the cultural heritage institutions that may face challenges as sea levels are predicted to rise, can help tell sustainability stories in new ways. Showing people how to create those visualizations provides an opportunity for empowerment. When your community learns to use available data to illustrate libraries at risk as the climate changes, for instance, they may feel more of an ownership stake, and may be more likely to advocate for change. And if you can show them how they can contact their local representatives to share their work, that’s a chance for the data they’ve visualized to illustrate a need for legislation and other actions that can help ensure their communities are sustainable.

If data literacy is one pathway to protecting our communities from these potential events, creating programs that strengthen the public’s understanding and use of public data is important now more than ever. By offering examples or training for librarians on how to they can build public data visualization programs for their communities, SunstainRT can help empower those communities. It’s a small action that can help make a big difference.

Mary Bakija is an MLIS student at Pratt Institute, where she also serves as the President of the school’s ALA student chapter. This fall, she will begin a fellowship at the Frick Art Reference Library working with the web archiving team for the New York Art Resources Consortium.

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