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Generation Z majority left cold by data literacy

Data literacy is a term with little currency among 16 to 21-year-olds, according to research commissioned by analytics database company Exasol, but more than half of those surveyed think data skills should be more prominent in education

As a term, “data literacy” may be commonly used in the business data community, but it enjoys little recognition among 16 to 21-year-olds, according to research commissioned by analytics database supplier Exasol.

Censuswide surveyed 3,000 16 to 21-year-olds in the UK, the US and Germany and carried out discussions with three groups of 18 to 25-year-olds in each of those countries. 

The research found that only 43% of respondents considered themselves to be data literate and 55% believed data skills should be more prominent in their education, while 54% were not familiar with the term “data literacy”.

Exasol has invented the term D/Natives to describe this generational cohort because of their habituation to digital.

The research report’s authors saw an irony at the heart of the survey’s findings. These digital natives, they argued, “don’t fully realise that their everyday online activities involve a lot of data consumption and analysis – from fitness trackers to entertainment recommendation engines to product reviews and scores”.

They added: “Given this gap in understanding, it is not surprising that D/Natives don’t feel equipped to apply their subconscious and habitual data literacy skills to the real world.”

Adah Parris, a futurist, cultural strategist and contributor to the report, said: “Data literacy is about more than number-crunching, it’s about being a storyteller, a narrator. As we create data, the data creates us. It is a non-linear process of inter- and intra-connected storytelling. Data isn’t this complex, scary thing for technical people. Data is about facts and data literacy is the ability to recognise and interpret the patterns that those facts reveal. On that basis, D/Natives might actually be more data literate than they think.”

Nevertheless, the report makes alarming reading for business leaders looking for employees who can interpret data to make better decisions.

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Helena Schwenk, analyst relations and market intelligence lead at Exasol, said: “Regardless of job descriptions, the ability to work with data is becoming increasingly crucial in the workplace. In theory, D/Natives should have developed the data literacy skills necessary for effective data analysis, storytelling and visualisations. Their untapped potential could spur a revolution in the way we use data to transform business and improve our daily lives.

“But our survey highlights two issues: a genuine skills shortage when it comes to the more complex data skills gained through the education system, and a clear miscommunication between the language D/Natives use and the business jargon used by employers. There is work for educators, business leaders and the young people themselves to do to bridge the data literacy gap – to create not just a productive workforce, but also a richer society.”

Schwenk, a former analyst at IDC and Ovum, has recently been joined at Exasol by Peter Jackson as its chief data and analytics officer. Jackson also has a high profile in the UK data community, as the co-author, with Caroline Carruthers, of The chief data officer’s playbook and a former data leader at the Pensions Regulator, Southern Water and Legal & General.

In a roundtable discussion connected with the publication of the research, Jackson lamented an over-concentration on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education for data scientists. Referring to a data-information-knowledge-wisdom “pyramid” model, he said: “In data teams, there is room for all sorts of people. Once you move up that pyramid, you need people who will say: ‘So what? What are we going to do on the basis of the data we’ve seen?’

“That requires curiosity and creativity. So, I challenge STEM. The best data scientist I’ve ever had in one of my teams had a philosophy degree from Warwick University, because he was creative and curious.

“We talk a lot about maths, but the key thing is logic. Talk to young people about logic, not maths. And also about patterns and anomalies – that is hugely important in healthcare, for instance.

“And in the interface between schools and education, more broadly, and industry, we do have a responsibility on the industry side. We should share our skills with the wider society.”

The quantitative part of the research was conducted in late December 2020 to early January 2021. The qualitative research with the focus groups was completed in February 2021.  

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