Data is a tool of power. It can shift opinions, show different sides of a story, and compel people to act. But data has most often been employed as a tool for those that already hold political power. The Open Environmental Data Project was created because we have the opportunity to use data and information as tools to shift conversations, build better systems of representation and collaboration and point to places where governance of environment, climate and intertwined human systems can be done in ways that don’t leave people out.
OEDP was given life through funding by the Shuttleworth Foundation and our work rolled out based on several hypotheses about the environmental data space and how to build stronger, collaborative models of environmental governance. While you can read more about these in the project intro (as well as why we’re passionate about this work), those hypotheses were: 1) establish better models for communities to govern the use of their own data, but also create models that would benefit cross-sector collaborative environmental governance, 2) with the increasing sensory landscape of DIY and open hardware monitoring projects, there is a need to identify ways that this information and data can be used and useful in environmental governance, and 3) even available data isn’t enough unless we address the social and political complexities surrounding the ability to apply it.
When the Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP) started in Spring of 2020, we entered a volatile political landscape. The Trump administration was focused on uplifting extractive industry and denying climate change, while simultaneously tearing down the fundamental building blocks of democracy. At the same time, COVID had emerged not just as the global public health crisis of our time, but also a reminder of the deeply entrenched ways in which pollution and health are intrinsically linked .
With these complexities in mind, we kicked off our work in 2020 by talking to people engaged in the environmental data and governance landscape, producing several series on defining the environmental data problem space, ideating the application of collaborative structures (most robustly used in the health sector) in the environmental space, proposing the creation of a generative framework and environmental trend platform to help build better systems of governance, and partnering to build a model and future-facing landscape for legislative workflows using SIDE environmental events and the Civic Voice Platform.
Before the end of 2020, we knew there would be a new Administration which would lead to changes in the ways in which we were working. The Biden Administration has centered scientific integrity, provided some (though not enough) support for climate change in the recent infrastructure bill , there is now an Environmental Justice working group seated in the White House and a government-wide Justice40 initiative . But January 6, 2021 in the U.S. reminded us that the problems in our democracy were much deeper than a new Administration’s hopeful agenda could solve. For us, in the space of environmental governance, what this signaled was a need to more strongly focus on the social, cultural and political pushpoints, demonstrating and modeling ways in which we could build longer term system change while highlighting the nearer term opportunities.
There are many different routes that our work could go. Historically open source has most clearly been identified with technology, but OEDP sits in the place in which the underpinnings of open in practice are most present – we’re interested in transparency, collaboration, building community, and the ability to collectively solve problems together. Rather than side with techno-solutionism, which the short yet deep history of civic tech taught us is a fraught road to follow, we’ve doubled down on that which will be most impactful right now in this space. A few key places of focus:
Communities are not the ones that need convincing, government agencies (and scientific institutions) are. While there has been individual interest in addressing data usability issues and creating models for more participatory and collaborative modes of engagement with issues of environmental governance, there are few office or agency-wide frameworks for how this is accomplished. We often encounter a lack of socialization of ideas around environmental data and few models for leadership that demonstrate how to think and talk differently about community-engaged environmental governance. While the field of citizen science has been countering the distrust of data from agencies, this is only one of the many barricades that we see in lack of willingness to create governance models that are truly collaborative. For instance, a recent article  by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees encouraged the incorporation of recognitional and capabilities justice into the work of EPA, discussing the implementation of Health Impact Assessments (HIA) as a means of deepening community input. However, in concluding they noted that two constraints were present, “One challenge is that local decision-makers may not be willing to participate as stakeholders in the process and are under no obligation to take HIA recommendations.” The second constraint identified was complications around “building trust, relationships, and capacity for engaging in decision processes so that community members and CBOs can participate fully.” If we don’t invest in opening doors for dialogue and creating leadership that demonstrates ways in which agencies can be open and receptive to community input, the technical and social projects we create will be short-lived.
Administrative Justice must sit side-by-side with Environmental Justice. Citizen Science (and community science and environmental justice organizing) did the job of making a right and responsibility out of creating places to contribute scientific data, which the government, to some extent and in different pockets, embraced . But it doesn’t mean that data from outside agencies will be used. Community data and the models in which it is collected are still viewed as a mechanism of public outreach, not an important and essential part of environmental governance. The field of citizen science also generally normalizes the problematic structures and standards that environmental data and information from communities have to work within. Creating the fortitude for changing these systems, for considering both good enough data and environmental data as a public good is a must-have. As previously noted in the environmental data maze: “A vast majority of the critical infrastructure for how environmental information flows and is used specifically to create stronger policies and practices lies squarely in the realm of translating and navigating the vast laws, loopholes, and relationships that can shift outcomes. Importantly, this means that while there is a heightened ability for people to collect data and information (through technological innovation) and share it (through apps, social media, etc.), the ratio of data collected to data used is questionable.” Talking about new models for how we think about data sharing, accessibility and usability with a multi-sector lens attached is a critical need. Should we borrow lessons from the world of health data collaboratives? Can we spend time looking at our existing workflows and imaging how we might transform them five years out? While transformative thinking is complicated, it is necessary to see an equitably governed environmental future.
Collaborative governance is about representation. To create true representation we have to build policies and enact solutions that people can not only get behind, but embody and practice in their own actions. The creation of climate and environmental policy in the political systems they sit within is complex, but there are abundant opportunities for places where environmental data and information can play a role in making this a reality. There’s been a significant push to open environmental data in the last decade, but the usability of this data isn’t a focus beyond the primary purpose for the agency dataholder. Increasing the number of people and types of use for this data beyond original intent could provide new ways to think about environmental issues and systems. We can also build better systems for data input that doesn’t amount to an overflow of information through building collaborative governance systems at the level of the data holders -- communities -- that can lead to curated and concise representations of communities.
So landing at a year and several months into OEDP, here’s what we’re up to and where we’re headed:
Socializing opportunities to transform the environmental data and governance landscape. We’re doing this through Environmental Data Dialogues and our ongoing use of small “brain trusts”, places that provide moments of curated collision and a space for people to connect and build community with others who are creating environmental and climate data and governance solutions, laying the seed for new opportunities to emerge.
Pointing to places of opportunity to change environmental data and information flows. This work is urgent and complicated, but opportunities abound. In Fall 2021, we’re starting to convene small groups to create opportunity briefs -- highlighting recommendations for transformative change that are both immediate and longer-term. From these convenings and opportunity briefs, we’ll be considering how we deal with the current systems while also setting a pace for the future. First up, we’ll be talking about environmental data as a public good in efforts to address climate change.
Creating a Data Solutions Library. A dynamic place of input from which designers, educators, government, communities and other researchers can locate opportunities that inform prototypes towards solutions. We’re using formats such as Environmental Data Dialogues and brain trusts as a place to build a library that highlights pain points, opportunities and community solutions that already exist.
Exploring frameworks for collective representation. We’re interested in piloting models for people to try out collaborative governance of environmental data and information that can lead to better interaction and representation within legislative and executive processes. We’ve already started exploring this with our Civic Voice work and have envisioned the potential for community data hubs (stay tuned in 2022!).
Curating a space for collective learning across sectors. We’re beginning to design workshops, trainings and curriculum that help people connect the dots, grow leadership in the environmental governance space and break through the barriers of data access and usability (more soon!).
We’re working with what already exists. Coordinating across partnerships, we’re starting to develop a network that goes “Beyond Compliance” to build a collaborative ecosystem for ensuring that data which already exists is usable, useful, findable and accessible (also more soon!).
Building the ecosystem. OEDP is a small group, but the power of partnerships and amplifying messages is core to our approach. We’re continuing to support and build ecosystems that focus on other parts of the issues we care about:
- Open hardware for science: Over the last decade, a significant DIY and open hardware landscape for environmental monitoring has been created, but we need to build the infrastructure in which this technology lives through putting effort into the policies around it and the barriers that prevent further adoption. Through efforts over the last year alongside the Gathering for Open Science Hardware, and the Wilson Center Science and Technology Innovation Program, we’ve started making strides in this direction.
- Open Climate: We have knowledge at many scales to address the climate crisis, but we need to better connect the open movement, digital rights and climate action and justice. The OpenClimate collaboration is starting to make these connections while we build out the next steps for creating a larger push in this space.
Working on environment and climate issues is a paradox -- it’s urgent but it’s also a long-game, it’s immediate and fierce as seen in the after effects of wildfires and hurricanes, but it’s also a slow violence . We have roadmaps that will get us part of the way to where we need to be in addressing the now-upon-us climate crisis, but the number of speed bumps in these roadmaps because of human relationships, behaviors, bureaucratic and administrative legacy systems, render these paths difficult to navigate. We have many of the tools necessary to create better systems for environmental governance, but we need to focus on the ecosystem that will put them into use -- not just the data infrastructure, innovation competitions or R&D of new technology, but of building different relationships with science, data and other people at a time when relationship development is already so fraught with political complexities. We need to be thinking beyond training and encouraging the next generation of activists (thank you to all of the people doing this, there’s much to do!), and doubling our efforts on creating a new generation of compliance and enforcement officers, data scientists and designers, who understand the need to build with an urgency and focus on creating a space that will allow the environmental and climate solutions we already have in hand to actually be used. For a year and several months, OEDP has been dedicated to doing our part to grow and change the landscape of people, organizations, agencies and institutions that are going to be the ones that disallow behavior and systems that uphold poor environmental practices to persist (and thrive). We look forward to continuing this work.