Good Enough Data

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Written by
ElizabethTyson

In the field of economics, global public goods and services are defined as non-excludable, non-rivalrous and provide benefits to all humans. Under this ideal construct the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we live on are all public environmental goods for which we receive health benefits when they are clean and available to all humans. There is a trending idea that the fourth industrial revolution will unfold upon the backbone of data, data about us and how our goods and services move throughout the world. Because of this, data about the health and status of our environment should, by extension, become a public good. And data will only increase in value over time.  

However the utopia of public environmental goods is far from reality and instead we see an outsize control of water, air and land resources by a handful of private and government interests which impacts the health of millions of humans. This reality is also starting to unfold in the space of environmental data and the same power dynamics are being replicated. For example, in the past 10-15 years there has been an increase of community science methods for environmental monitoring aided and accelerated by the internet and the reduced cost of sensor components for air, water, soil and other environmental variables. Many independent organizers, and NGO’s use these methods for reporting on environmental problems. This has produced new environmental data sources that are created by groups of people outside of traditional scientific or government institutions. Because of this trend, governments in the US, UK, Australia and Europe have acknowledged the value of this new data source for informing and influencing environmental policy, regulation and monitoring.  

While the enthusiasm for these methods are encouraging there is a troubling assumption and narrative hidden in the rise of these methods for civic environmental problem solving - that the citizens who are stepping in, many who’ve been historically excluded, are responsible for monitoring their environment. While there are co-learning benefits for communities participating in these initiatives, it can set up an antagonistic environment between government and citizens instead of a cooperative environment.  This narrative can be counter-productive and perpetuates the power imbalance when we focus energy on the legitimization of these community science environmental monitoring projects as a data quality problem.

Instead, in light of the growing trend towards a data-centric decision-making universe, more energy should be spent thinking and building environmental data systems that treat all environmental data as a public good. This begins by shifting the main narrative from data quality concerns towards a more productive narrative, one that acknowledges and promotes the value of “Good Enough Data” -  a concept where coarse environmental data of known quality is treated as a public good. The value of this approach is not to belittle the importance of data quality but instead accept the utility of coarse environmental data as a valuable tool that repairs and re-focuses stakeholders with the thought that a system of Good Enough Data could help us all steward our environment better.