IRI Develops Innovative Data Literacy Curriculum

  • Robin Merritt
Data Literacy Curriculum cover page

While it is well-recognized that data is increasingly important for designing and implementing evidence-based democracy and governance (D&G) interventions, one piece of the puzzle is often missing in programming. Democracy activists and actors on the ground must also be able to collect, analyze, and report data accurately and effectively. Together, these skills create data literacy – the ability to read, understand, and use data in various ways. Data literacy is increasingly important considering the rise of new technologies that have significantly reduced the production cost, time, and effort involved. As activists around the world shift from data users to data producers, it is critical to build their literacy to advance D&G efforts and activism.

Despite its importance, low levels of data literacy act as a barrier to accessing and using data worldwide. For example, low data literacy among democracy activists is documented in a 2018 IRI media assessment. This assessment found that Ecuadorian journalists often lack the ability to understand and analyze electoral data, hindering their efforts to accurately report on electoral processes and results. Similarly, an evaluation of the USAID-funded Rights for Gender Diverse Populations (RGDP) Activity identified increasing the capacity of stakeholders to analyze, interpret, and use data as a key technical need for those advocating against violence against women. This lack of data literacy among democracy activists and practitioners therefore represents a worrisome skills gap that hinders local actors’ ability to advocate for more open, accountable, and resilient democratic societies.  

To help address this gap, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and its partner, the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), developed a data literacy curriculum customized to the work of democracy activists under the NED-funded Data for Democracy project. This curriculum consists of a series of 10 advanced, field-tested modules covering the skills that are most relevant for democracy and governance efforts.

With the new curriculum in hand, IRI launched a series of virtual data literacy trainings in January to pilot its contents, gathering critical feedback from participants who span the globe and operate in open, closed, and closing spaces to promote democracy.

The final curriculum is divided into two broad sections. First, a foundational curriculum covers the basics of data literacy – explaining how democracy activists can think broadly about and work with data, before diving into specifying how to find, verify, clean, and present it. The second section, added in response to participant feedback, presents modules that address topics ranging from best uses for geographical data to creating spreadsheets and using data to evaluate a project. These additional modules complement the first section by equipping local D&G actors with specific tools to implement advocacy projects.

Over 20 activists participated in this training, and six activists went on to use these skills to implement data-centered projects, promoting greater transparency and accountability in both established and emerging democracies. For example, one participant used data visualization techniques learned in the trainings to visualize data gathered on procurement inefficiencies in Kosovo and their effect on citizen’s access to services. These visualizations supported their efforts to advocate for procurement law reform among legislators and the public. A separate participant, seeking to quantify the participation of women in government in Albania, used knowledge gained during the training to formally request data from the government. This official data strengthened their advocacy for women’s political participation and representation in their country’s parliament.

Data most of the time, by how our education curriculum system is, it’s something that would be mystified… This whole module of doing data literacy and practical coaching and mentorship …It really demystified data, data work and approaches. – Training Participant, Female, Zimbabwe

The curriculum is now publicly available on IRI’s website, and IRI encourages implementers, local organizations, and citizens alike to use it to produce high quality data and analysis that generates lasting, sector-wide improvements in how we advance democracy and governance around the world.

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