My 6 year old son brought back from school a booklet about the Convention of the Rights of the Child. As a school councillor he is expected to have a copy on his person, or so I believe, in case any one might need to check out their rights in the playground or corridor! It is a neat and accessible booklet explaining the many rights which we take often for granted here in the UK but which are absent for many children around the world. I am constantly being reminded of the right to play!
I had heard a lot about it from my son but never actually read it. When I did do so, the archivist in me was drawn to Articles 7 & 8. Article 7 states ‘every child has a right to a birth certificate’ in the child friendly version, and states in the actual convention that:
‘1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and. as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.’
Article 8 reinforces this notion of identity:
‘1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity. ‘
The importance of a birth certificate
Interesting yet blindingly obvious to most of us reading this blog. It is wonderful to live in a society where it would never occur to us that we couldn’t have a birth certificate or if we lost it we couldn’t get a replacement. So many people around the world do not live with this certainty. Despite 191 countries ratifying the Convention, the births of millions of children worldwide go unregistered. Birth registration opens the door to rights to children and adults which many other human beings take for granted: to prove their age; to prove their nationality; to receive healthcare; to go to school; to take exams; to be adopted; to protection from under-age military service or conscription; to marry; open a bank account; to hold a driving licence; to obtain a passport; to inherit money or property; and to vote or stand for elected office.
If there was any doubt about this, this map of the percentage of children under 5 whose births are registered demonstrates that this basic right is not met in many countries around the world. Questions of birth certification integrity have arisen in recent times in the ‘developed’ world, just think about how much controversy Obama’s birth cert has caused!
The importance of records for our identity
Records, on the whole, including records of births have lived in discreet repositories most of their lives and it usually their absence/loss during wars/conflicts that bring them to most peoples’ attention. During most recent conflicts one of the first targets will be a library and archive or a museum. The destruction of archives occurred in Bosnia and Iraq during conflicts there. This has been termed ‘cultural genocide’. I would go further and if I were to use such language I would call it ‘identicide’ , the destruction of peoples’ identity. Now that this vital data is increasingly if not primarily electronic we are looking at increased risks and vulnerabilities of data loss or corruption – not by totalitarian regimes or warring ethnic conflicts but by that single enemy known as benign neglect due partly to hardware, software obsolesence and our neglect or inaction.
Bringing it all together
Musing on all this I landed in Millfields school, thanks to Jonathan Everingham, the teacher in charge of history at Millfields. He asked me to speak to a group of children at the school in year 6 about ‘My Job’. I never thought I would speak to fifteen 9-10 year olds about data and data creation. With children I usually steer clear of this and show them ‘fun’ documents such as old alphabets or old archive footage of children their age – fun fun fun. I really wondered how they would respond. I knew from Jonathan they were studying Ancient Egypt and knew they were doing some simple data gathering and making graphs. Fun! I really wanted to communicate to them the importance of primary sources whether it be electronic or analogue but I was going to focus on data this time. But how to make data fun? I decided to combine the two topics they were studying – Egypt and data gathering – and weave them into my talk.
A quick visit to the time of the Ptolomies
So closing our eyes we paid a visit to the time of the Ptolemies in Ancient Egypt and looked at a census from then written in demotic. They were a clever group but no demotic readers! I explained that it had 21 columns of a Ptolemaic census-return for a household. We discussed why governments then and now gather data and the idea of language as code and the absolute need for a demotic dictionary to intterpret this data. They also noted how well the papyrus survived despite its age. I showed them pictures of the people this data could have related to, beautiful portraits of soul searching greco-egyptian men and women looking at us across the ages from their coffin paintings.
I asked them to identify which records produced by the government today did they think related to them? They themselves came up with birth and death and discussed what you needed these for and what would happen if you didn’t have the record of your birth. I wanted them to draw a direct relationship between their lives and the record of their lives and to think about what it would be like NOT to have this information, what it would mean to them as individuals. I also wanted them to be enfranchised/ connected to the fact that the state holds and is supposed to look after these their records of their important life events.
Back to the future
We then cut to a slide of a 20th century census. This time it was the register of primary births in the United Kingdom in 1963, i.e. the stuff needed to prove you were born. I had worked on this dataset while on the NDAD project. I showed them a snapshot of the raw encoded data and asked them to identify anything which made sense! They immediately zoned in on identifiable codes, one recgonised it as ‘some sort of data’ but agreed it was gobbledegook on the whole. In assessing the data, they quickly realised that something crucial was missing to accompany the data – the data dictionary. We hummed and hawed a while trying to dicipher the code but to no avail. I then showed them the partially decoded data. They could easily read through the data and understand each field and what a field was. The speed at which things ‘clicked’ for them suprised me. So these students are ‘digital natives’ I had heard about ! They are removed from people like me (not hard) and their teacher who are in many ways always trying to catch up with technology. They then were very keen to discuss what data should be kept about them – facebook! Twitter! Photos, text messages. They were outraged by the idea that facebook may not be being kept! I think they were also outraged that a government department with responsibility for such crucial data would not keep the dictionary explaining the code. This is their/ their parents’ data!
What fascinated me was these 9-10 year old children easily made so many leaps in understanding. 1. The leap of association between encoded data and language as a code. 2. The identification of data as having a role in their lives 3.Awareness of the fragility of digital stuff 4. that they should have a say in what is being kept.
This is out data, look after it please
Should we be talking to these ‘digital natives’ more than we do? Shouldn’t everyone be engaged in what is being kept in relation to their collective memory? This generation and each subsequent generation have such an aptitude for technology and its uses that is astounding. Do we do them a diservice not asking them what it is they would like, while bearing in mind their youth and inexperience but also bearing in mind they will inherit whatever we have left behind in our (in the minds of the future) clumsy inept approach.
Since the visit to Millfields I have discovered CensusAtSchool, a project where national census can be used to help children learn and do statistics. I think there is a lot of potential here to look at working with children and enfranchising them with regards to data and its use. I like this important idea of enfranchising people – there is so much disenfranchisement around. Data isn’t easy and people need help but it is also up to the creators, especially government to make it easy to access and view. A message from Hackney ‘This is our data, let’s reclaim it.’