Online Learning and Making the Most of Open Government Data

In Brief:

  • The Knight Center (University of Texas) is set to begin the first massive open online course on infographics and data visualization, joining other online courses now available to those who want to leverage the increased availability of “Open Government Data”.
  • By increasing the pool of citizens, journalists and officials with data visualization and analysis skills, those online courses can help create more capabilities to extract value from Open Government Data.

At the end of October, the Knight Center’s first massive open online course (MOOC), Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, will be available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. Unlike other Knight Foundation courses, Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization does not feature any application or selection process, and students are only charged a small $20 fee if they choose to receive a certificate upon completing the program. Taught by Alberto Cairo of the University of Miami, the six week course will use video lectures, tutorials, readings, exercises, quizzes and discussion forums to teach students how to design attractive, informative and accurate infographics and visualizations. Perhaps the course’s greatest selling point is its practically non-existent barrier to entry—no previous experience is required and Cairo claims that not only is proficiency with any particular software not required, most exercises can be completed using pen and paper.

While statisticians and designers are an obvious target for this type of course, the practical value of data visualization skills has grown exponentially with the rise of Big Data, and Open Government Data (OGD) in particular. In this time of OGD, a skilled data visualizer can help spur innovation in the public and private sector through the intelligent use of government data and increase government transparency by educating citizens through the informative and understandable presentation of complex public data.

Many, including U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, argue that the release of government data is not just a “good government” initiative, but rather, providing government data for private use is a means of spurring innovation and stimulating the economy through new products and services. Of course, for the value of OGD to be unlocked, more people are needed to successfully analysis and visualize that data. If private innovation can keep pace with public data dispersal, Tim O’Reilly’s vision of government as a platform may take hold. O’Reilly, like Park, believes that it’s not government’s responsibility to find innovative ways of using OGD; government’s responsibility ends at providing useful, machine-readable data. As long as government maintains its end of the OGD bargain, the private sector can utilize government’s unmatched capacity for data collection to create new value. At the same time, the need for more people capable of analyzing big business data is well documented.

Increasing the pool of experts with data analysis and visualization skills can also help serve the public good by presenting incredibly complex, chaotic datasets in digestible forms, opening them to public scrutiny. Two projects created by Open Spending, an Open Knowledge Foundation initiative, Where Does My Money Go?—a visualization of where tax dollars are directed—and the Uganda Aid Visualization demonstrate how the successful use of OGD by those outside of government can serve to educate citizens who lack an advanced understanding of data and statistics while increasing government transparency.

While the Knight Center’s Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization is the first true MOOC exclusively focused on infographics and visualization, it is not the only online data analysis training in existence.

Perhaps the most promising example of online education in this space has not yet launched. The School of Data, a free joint venture from the Open Knowledge Foundation and P2PU, has the mission to “promote data literacy and data ‘wrangling’ skills—the ability to find, clean, retrieve, manipulate, analyse, interpret and represent different types of data—across the world.” The school aims to achieve its mission through four parts: offline training events and workshops, a data blog, its forthcoming online courses and the Data Wrangling Handbook, an online data analysis and visualization textbook that provides detail and theory in support of the school’s courses. Unlike the Knight Foundation course, the School of Data does not yet have a system of certification in place, though it is certainly feasible that one will be instituted by the time courses officially launch.’s asynchronous Interactive Data Visualization course is another seemingly promising option. The course aims to provide students with the ability to “explore and graph multivariate data, either to form impressions of the data or as a preliminary step to performing statistical tests or building models.” While the practical value of the course is evident, it is neither free (students are charged a $499 fee), nor open to all (students must complete two prerequisites to register).

Two of the most prominent names in free online education, Coursera and Udacity, offer courses somewhat similar to the Knight Center’s offering, but in both cases data visualization is only part of a broader focus. Coursera’s Introduction to Data Science, a University of Washington course, includes instruction on data visualization in addition to more advanced data science topics like parallel algorithms and guidance on new software tools used by data scientists. While Coursera courses are always open to anyone with an Internet connection, a programming background and some familiarity with databases is recommended. Udacity’s Introduction to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data features a strong data visualization element—the entire first unit of the course is dedicated to it—but, as the course title suggests, the broader focus lies on using statistical analysis to reach conclusions, by any number of available methods. While no doubt valuable, both courses seem to present greater barriers to entry than the Knight Center offering.

Two other respected names in higher education, MIT and Harvard, also offer data visualization materials free online. MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) provides free course materials for its How to Process, Analyze and Visualize Data course, which aims to teach students to “take raw data, extract meaningful information, use statistical tools, and make visualizations.” While the course’s syllabus, lecture notes and assignments are freely available, students are expected to have some programming background, and they do not have any access to MIT faculty. Similarly, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences offers a class in data visualization. Like OCW, Harvard provides free learning materials—a syllabus, homework assignments and student projects—as well as video of lectures from the 2011 iteration of the course. While both MIT and Harvard provide material geared exclusively toward data visualization, unlike the Coursera and Udacity offerings, the barriers to entry for beginners appear to be somewhat high, and there is no interaction between students and faculty, as there will be in the Knight Center course.


– A “thoughtfully curated selection” of data visualization tools is available at

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