Jon Udell: Motivation, context, and citizen analysis of government data

I ran across this blog post by Jon Udell on and I think Udell and Willinsky are on to something here:

…these are only views of data. There’s no analysis and interpretation, no statistical rigor. Since most ordinary citizens lack the expertise to engage at that level, are governments that publish raw data simply asking for trouble? Will bogus interpretations by unqualified observers wind up doing more harm than good?

That’s a legitimate concern, and while the issue hasn’t yet arisen, because public access to this level of data is a very new phenomenon, it certainly will. To address that concern I’ll reiterate part of another item in which I mentioned John Willinsky’s amazing talk on the future of education:

    Willinsky talks about how he, as a reading specialist, would never have predicted what has now become routine. Patients with no ability to read specialized medical literature are, nonetheless, doing so, and then arriving in their doctors’ offices asking well-informed questions. Willinsky (only semi-jokingly) says the Canadian Medical Association decided this shouldn’t be called “patient intimidation” but, rather, “shared decision-making.”

    How can level 8 readers absorb level 14 material? There are only two factors that govern reading success, Willinsky says: motivation, and context. When you’re sick, or when a loved one is sick, your motivation is a given. As for context:

    “They don’t have a context? They build a context. The first time they get a medical article, duh, I don’t know what’s going on here, I can’t read the title. But what happened when I did that search? I got 20 other articles on the same topic. And of those 20, one of them, I got a start on. It was from the New York Times, or the Globe and Mail, and when I take that explanation back to the medical research, I’ve got a context. And then when I go into the doctor’s office…and actually, one of the interesting things…is that a study showed that 65% of the doctors who had had this experience of patient intimidation shared decision-making said the research was new to them, and they were kind of grateful, because they don’t have time to check every new development.”

When your loved one is sick, you’re motivated to engage with primary medical literature, and you’ll build yourself a context in which to do that. Similarly, when your neighborhood is sick, you’ll be motivated to engage with government data, and you’ll build yourself a context for that.

Web 2.0 already is putting government data in reach of the person who is both educated and motivated – think GovTrack, OpenCongress, WashingtonWatch, and even the staid Thomas. Blogs and the state of the world are adding some motivation – is it enough? Even if it is, in his happy embrace of Willinsky’s thesis, Udell does gloss over one of the points in the example – that the patient was able to build the context that enabled them to access the more technical and demanding research only by first finding more accessible articles from lay sources, that they could then build their context from. And then the patient goes to the expert – the doctor – to finish out the knowledge-building that they need to satisfy their concern.

So what does this mean for civic engagement? Of course motivation is a crucial ingredient, and access to accurate, timely information is essential. But, as Udell’s post suggests, the bridge from motivation to the successful construction of knowledge for effective action, will require a gateway to context-building – the accessible lay articles that can get the motivated citizen a foothold for the climb.

Clearly, blogs can contribute to that gateway role, and some bloggers certainly do. Whenever a blogger points directly to a bill on Thomas (with a working link, ahem – the badge of the true wonk being the ability to make a working link to a bill on Thomas, heh), they are opening the gate for their readers. Hopefully, more and more political and civic bloggers will start thinking consciously about their gateway role, and how they use Web 2.0+, creativity, and anything else to open that gate wider and make it more enticing for their readers to walk through.

Cross-posted from Freedom’s Fire, Brightly Burning.

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2 Responses to Jon Udell: Motivation, context, and citizen analysis of government data

  1. Ginny in CO says:

    Awesome MH

    This is an issue I have been very involved in as an RN who has had to deal with teaching and motivating people to make healthy lifestyle changes. Motivation is key and their context is the medical diagnosis/prognosis that arouses them from ignoring how important it is to understanding WHY they have to make them. The first step is to get that bridge from no context to one that is not overly simplified, yet understandable.

    The Internet, being the wonder of the millenia, is beating us over our heads that humans are capable, and often really love learning. I always think of the true story based movie Lorenzo’s Oil>| when I hear about people figuring things out – up to major discoveries- well outside of their training or educational achievements.

    Velcro was one. The best device for controlling chronic leg edema was developed by a man who had cared for his wife for years. He got the initial question/idea during a trip to the zoo with the grandkids. At the giraffe exhibit. The company that developed it referred to it as ‘giraffe skin for people’.

    I recently saw a local news media story on the web about a retiree who had been looking for a cure for cancer. As I recall, his field had not been anything in the hard sciences, let alone research. In finding something that has significant potential for cancer research, he also figured out a way we could burn salt water for fuel, in cars.

    The issue is how fast new information and data is being created and available to billions through the Internet. Our knowledge base is doubling faster than anyone can keep up with some of it.

  2. MH says:


    It’s great that you have an opportunity to help people learn things they need to learn in order to be healthier. So you can vouch for the ability of people to learn what they need to, if the motivation is there and the informational stepping stones are provided.

    The vast expansion of data availability to average people presents the challenge of “information overload” but to the extent it can be narrowed to just what the person needs in a particular situation at a particular time, it’s great. For example if you go to a weather site to look at the weather forecast, you are not interested in ALL weather data for all times, just the weather forecast for the next few days for your own locale (or where you are going on vacation or whatever). And that is exactly what the weather site gives you – generally with easy to understand symbols and not a lot of jargon about why the probability of rain is 80% for tomorrow.

    Now if only we could figure out how to make information about what Congress is up to, as simple to read and understand as the weather site!