How We Have Conversation: Thoughts on Our First Season of Data Dialogues
December 3, 2021

I firmly believe that there’s a connecting thread and a conversation to be had between any two people. Data Dialogues is an attempt to figure out what that conversation could be for any two people working with environmental data. If knowledge is more than data and data is more than numbers then how can our collective intelligence be made more useful, understandable, inclusive, accessible and recognized? Where are the successes in communities’ use and production of environmental data and what do we offer each other? 

A full Data Dialogue consists of three episodes: two guests each have their own 15 - 20 minute 1:1 “highlight segments” with me, followed by a shared  30 - 40 minute group conversation between myself and both guests. We want each segment to stand on its own and work with the other two. Listeners can experience the dialogues as a series of easily digestible talks from a single person on a single topic. The group conversation can be a source of shared insights where two people connect and find ways to use environmental data. 

At its heart, Data Dialogues is a series of conversations with three main goals: create community, socialize positive ideas for using open environmental data, and elevate community voices. We want you to become part of these conversations. We’d like you to become part of these conversations and hope they’ll prompt your own discussions on working with one another, with us, to increase productive participation and more representative decision making.

Early Experiments

As part of early experiments in the Summer of 2021 OEDP grappled with how we could create a space for discussions around useful environmental data, asking about who would find these conversations immediately useful and where those people look for information. We researched many platforms: Did we want to have these conversations on a Discord Server? Make vignettes and track audience responses on IGTV? Create a YouTube channel? Experiment with the free-form interactions on Clubhouse? Or create Webinars? 

During this time, we were incredibly fortunate to work with Jett Zhang, a youth climate activist and OEDP’s Summer 2021 Climate Governance Fellow. Jett did a significant amount of research into which platforms and media types would have the most equitable reach. As a test, I recorded our first three Data Dialogues through Zoom calls with the idea that we could edit 45-minute long talks into audio or audio-video segments that we imagined for our narrowed down platforms of IGTV, YouTube, or Facebook. Jett and I had a rich discussion on the youth climate movement with Jerome Foster II, founder of One Million of Us and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. We also had deeply insightful conversations on participatory open science with Joe Moross, a lead scientist at Safecast, and David Bressler, from the Stroud Water Research Center. During these first three pilot episodes we learned so much about our guests, their oftentimes unexpected observations on open environmental data and how Data Dialogues might work. Jett and I analyzed each conversation for pain points and opportunities and used these hours of interviews to seed the Data Solutions Library, a prototype platform with the intention of making conversations useful in sharing information and making decisions through metadata. Part of the learning here was that we would need increased technical abilities in order to make sure that the dialogue itself was at the center of the listener's attention -- as opposed to lighting or background noise.

Why a podcast

Beginning in September, Data Dialogues moved to a new format. After reflecting on the learnings from the summer, I wanted to balance the lightweight, come-as-you-are and unscripted newness of these conversations with making them attractive, useful to our guests, and a community space that could continue after any one particular talk was over. To do this, we needed a very accessible media platform that can be shared and discovered, as well as broadcast through our announcements. A podcast seemed to fit the bill.

Beyond just the audio, however, we’re excited to create an ecosystem around each episode that expands awareness of a given issue or topic: part of access and inclusion is in how the conversation is presented. We will present the full transcript for each edited dialogue both for language and disability access, as well as for searchable use. We use Otter.ai to produce a transcript with timestamps that can be used with the audio for comprehension. These will be available on our site along with metadata and show notes where we link directly to resources mentioned in each conversation. 

In producing this first season of Data Dialogues we looked into the work of hundreds of people in the environmental movement and contacted more than 50 people. We thought up conversation topics and planned what we liked to call “the perfect dinner party” many times over: like dinner parties, conversations are not scripted, but imagined and imaginative. We invited folks back as listeners if they couldn’t participate and have exciting possibilities in the works for another season next year.

Creating community

No conversation will be complete. No idea is absolute. We’re interested in the complexity of the conversation and where it can go from here. We hope our listeners consider themselves as part of any dialogue in the same way they sing along to their favorite songs or argue with the news. What resonates? What do you have to add to this conversation? What wasn’t said? Most importantly, where can a listener take this conversation to explore their own ideas around environmental data, community knowledge, and other subjects that come up? 

We are developing a community within every season and throughout the whole Data Dialogues project. We are creating a space where people can share how they are creatively and usefully solving problems with environmental data and community-based knowledge. We are celebrating both the ideas that come up and promoting the exchange in this forum. We speak with guests based on their deep experiences in their subject area and communities. A conversation is a space. That space is held as long as the conversation continues. 

In community, we aim to amplify our guests’ voices and directly insert their successes and ideas into our most participatory of public spaces: the interactions of government and Civil Society. Where Data Dialogues intersect with OEDP’s other research, we use these dialogues to support recommendations to policymakers and regulators to identify actions that can be taken based on identified successes or directly expressed needs.

Crediting and Use

In the same way that data is fluid, these conversations are pieces of data and their emergence can't be explicitly referenced in a cell within a spreadsheet or a line in a credit. And so, we're rethinking the way we acknowledge the creation of data from an idea to release. We thought a lot about how to equitably credit people’s contributions to this project, but this will be a work in progress. For our show notes and closing credits we settled on a version of crediting designed by the Civic Laboratory of Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) and explained in this post titled Equity in Author Order

Every member of OEDP has been involved in Data Dialogues, suggesting conversation pairs, researching, editing, and shaping the practice of Data Dialogues. Credited OEDP team members are Emma Grimm, Michelle Cheripka, Emelia Williams, Shannon Dosemagen, Katie Hoeberling and myself, Angela Eaton. 

In addition to our first guests we owe gratitude to former OEDP member, Elizabeth Tyson and the multiple participants of early OEDP Brain Trusts for their understanding and early articulation of the need for dialogues between decision makers and community data producers. Jett Zhang, Lorelei Kelley, and Scott Eustis provided helpful introductions. Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky of Castria helped sound edit during an early show. And, I owe a special debt to Gerry Cheripka who patiently “practiced dialoguing” with me before we started Data Dialogues as a podcast.

Data Dialogues is a gift of space created by Open Environmental Data Project. We are grateful and fortunate to receive financial support from The Shuttleworth Foundation. We receive and acknowledge the gifts of learning from podcasts such as Africa is a Country (AIAC), Contra* and Critical Design Lab, Broken Ground Podcast, The Commonwealth Club’s Climate One, On Being, Hot Take, Our Opinions Are Correct, Sean Carroll’s Mindscape, Flash Forward, The Long Now Foundation, Radical Imagination, Disability Visibility Project, and Cool Tools. These podcasts either directly offered assistance, were their own thought explosions as we were designing Data Dialogues, or helpfully posted their processes and language so we could start so much further along than if we did not have their examples. They are excellent podcasts and you should check them out. We humbly and gratefully accept all of these gifts of learning that they have publicly provided. 

The content of these podcasts are licensed under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted. 

Season Preview!

We have had such a transformative experience with our first season dialogues. And, success -- each one of our dialogue duos have made plans to work with each other in the future! Here are just a few of our thoughtful and amazing Season 1 guests and some of the emerging themes that came up: 

Muki Haklay spoke about the ingenuity of the non-literate communities he is working with to collect and share good quality environmental data while Sof Petros reflected on the privilege of time as it relates to community data collection. In our Data Dialogue they made engaging observations on how academia participates in community science.

Darrah Blackwater explained Native Spectrum Sovereignty while Tico Aran described how he is improving the quality of the watershed leading into the Biscayne Bay in Florida. Our Data Dialogue was an exchange on environmental assets as wealth and creating physical space. 

Natasha Udu-gama spoke from a scientist’s perspective about the importance of recognizing traditional knowledge while Jill Habig talked about the limitations of a complaints-based regulatory and enforcement system. Together, in our Data Dialogue, they exchanged alternate ways they’ve successfully engaged and supported marginalized communities.

Data Dialogues Season 1 has been one of the most rewarding experiments in connecting people I’ve had. Data Dialogues is for you. You, the community member. You, the regulator. You, the community or citizen scientist. You, the policymaker. You, the environmentally curious. We can’t wait to share these conversations with you and we hope you will join us in dialogue.