Introduction to the Open Environmental Data Project
April 20, 2020

Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity, as co-founder and executive director of Public Lab, to explore the ways that science and technological infrastructure can be useful in achieving the goals people have created while asking environmental questions. Ten years ago, on the heels of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Public Lab promoted an urgent need to scale the ability for people to do their own environmental monitoring. We created resources, platforms, and methods that would help address the immediate need caused by the spill as one of a few groups digging into the necessity of this issue. Industry was allowed (and even required) to do some degree of self-regulation (notably this hasn’t changed much) and there was a lack of capacity and resources in government at all levels to do the adequate monitoring to ensure people and the environment were protected.

Fast forward five years to 2015 and we found ourselves in a new situation where lots of open scientific hardware projects, open data initiatives and platforms for environmental and health monitoring were popping up at an astonishing rate, promising the potential to vastly alter the availability of resources for monitoring so people could more intimately understand the environments they were living in and how to make informed decisions about their resources.

And yet, like other sectors in our economy, our laws, policies, and governance weren’t keeping up with these technological developments. It became clear to me through my work with Public Lab and during my time on a Federal Advisory Council for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafting a report on citizen and community science [1], that the number of new monitoring devices and datasets coming into the space were only useful to a certain extent. Standards, verification practices and environmental policies were not moving as quickly as technological innovation. Tools were also being created as a stop-gap/silver bullet/one size fits all solution not recognizing the complexity of what goes into environmental monitoring and the number of different steps, people involved and processes that happen along the way.

And this bothered me. I saw an incredible value in the use of science and technology as a new strategy and tool for communities to assess and protect themselves but it was evident there were a series of fundamental cracks in the system.

To this end, I decided to step back from the important space that Public Lab operates in-- supporting communities in doing environmental monitoring-- and to focus on these cracks. With support from the Shuttleworth Foundation, I’m happy to announce the Open Environmental Data Project as a space and resource for articulating and addressing the fundamental challenges we are seeing and proposing and executing pilot solutions to these challenges.

As I’ve started to explore what we will be working on, one thing has become crystal clear to me: there is a need. A big one. In informal conversations I’ve had with people from government to philanthropy, from nonprofit and community groups to academia, people have become acutely aware of the challenges in how environmental and scientific data and the tools used to collect this data are being used (or not) to pursue the vision of healthier environments for all. This is heartening because it also means that there are lots of other people that are interested in tackling these challenges, addressing pieces of the problem and collectively envisioning a new landscape in which the utility of environmental data and tools from outside of government and industry is not a question, but holds a rightful place in ensuring protections.

Here’s where we’re starting and what we’re thinking:

  • We need stronger models of governance that span cross-sector for ensuring that data flows work, hardware projects are in coordination, and the public has the secured right to access them.
  • There is a need to build more robust models for hardware standards, verification and cross-project management of documentation.
  • The management of environmental data is siloed and usually dictated from within a project without cross-sector collaboration, making it complicated to engage. We need to examine this practice.
  • We need to think about this within a technological scope that crosses multiple geographies, policies and regulations that vary widely, and sometimes sit in hyper-local contexts. Though we may be starting in the United States, our goal is to ensure that models can be impactful in places around the world.

This is just our launching point, undoubtedly we’re going to learn a lot along the way and will rely on the vast community of people working in the environmental monitoring space to help us identify and shape priorities in the best service to the field at large. So if you see yourself or your work as part of what we’re attempting, please reach out-- we’d love to chat, figure out how we can collaborate, and see where a partnership might take us.


[1] National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology report to U.S. EPA “Environmental Protection Belongs to the Public