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Environmental Data as a Public Good
by
September 1, 2021
Written by
Emelia Williams

Environmental data, working as a public good, is essential for understanding, and thus addressing, local phenomena within local, state, tribal, regional, and federal policy. 

A public good works for the good of all, and its benefits cannot be limited. A public good is both non-rivalrous and non-excludable, so one person’s consumption of the good cannot affect or prevent another's ability to consume it. In the ideal sense, a public good provides safety and security, and is necessary for the functioning of the governed populace. It shouldn't always be assumed that a public good is being provided equitably, or made truly public. With this reality in mind, the structures for environmental data must be designed and implemented deliberately, with standards in place. While a public good's prioritization inherently indicates its significance, its access must be safeguarded for all.

The accessibility and usability, and existence of reliable environmental data, must be prioritized within all levels of governance in order to guarantee its place as a public good in society. This requires policy movement to ensure that both the populace and governing agencies and offices are willing to use the data, and that they have access to tools that enable the collection and utilization of data. Government offices and agencies also need processes to utilize community data in policy making, with governance models in place for the flow of data to make its way up and downstream. Accessibility and usability mean that communities can access (and understand) data about their environment, but also that they have access to data collection tools relevant to their physical landscape. 

We are witnessing the effects of unabated carbon emissions as the climate crisis continues to impact weather patterns, with historical seasons of fire, drought, storm, flood, and heat. Polluted land, water, and air continue to affect human and ecosystem health due to a lack of accountability from industry paired with historically damaging policy, and lagging physical infrastructure. 

The Biden Administration has indicated that a whole-of-government approach to both environmental justice and climate action is paramount to addressing these issues, and that the administration is willing to craft policy incorporating the values of scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking. There is an opportunity for systemic change, which is what implementing environmental data as a public good would require - the creation of new data streams, integration with legacy processes, and a comprehensive restructuring of how we understand and accept community data. 

Our goal is to utilize environmental data to create a system of accountability that is ongoing between communities, the public and private sectors. Its integration within a policymaking administration acts as an informational backstop, undeniable evidence that something is or isn’t happening in a specific locale. With environmental data working as a public good, communities can then be demonstrably and intrinsically linked to policymaking as witnesses, data collectors; something they, and we, have always been, but paired with governance models that cater to the priority of this information. 

It is not a new idea for data to be understood as a public good. There is a precedent for other sectors and their data to be used and implemented in this way: health, housing, demographics, etc. There is digital infrastructure for housing and utilization of these types of data, tested and relied-upon processes that policymakers use routinely. There is an established paradigm that both government and non-governmental users should be able to find relevant data, understand it, and act on it. Within the international community, especially within global public health initiatives, there is a robust ecosystem of understanding health data as a digital public good [1], with documented protocols, procedures, and learning tools [2]. What is keeping environmental data from being applied and used in the same way?

Whether environmental data looks like a dataset with water quality information or the lived experience expressed through a public comment at a town hall on methane leaks, its significance to this moment of political action (or inaction) is undeniable. Community environmental information and its ability to be instrumentalized will be the lynchpin in addressing the climate crisis and multiple pollution emergencies. Environmental data, when thought of and implemented as a public good, will ultimately work toward the safety of the populace in a manner that incorporates complexity and excludes none.

This blog corresponds with OEDP’s upcoming work on environmental data as a public good in efforts to address climate change.

[1] CDC - Data for Health Initiative - US and international facing programs to improve capacity in agencies to use health data to inform public health policy development

[2] WHO - Enable Data Use for Policy and Action - Tools for organizations and agencies to learn about different aspects of health data in the public use, namely creating a digital data infrastructure system

Both examples are two of myriad protocols, procedures, and tools for incorporating health data and creating digital infrastructure.