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Overview: Environmental Data Beyond Original Intent
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July 11, 2022
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While open data policies (e.g., the US OPEN Government Data Act enacted in 2019, the Open Government Partnership, and hundreds of actions related to the Covid-19 data) have set a foundation for data transparency and availability, they often fall far short of making data accessible, usable, and in many cases, findable. Disparities in access to resources and lack of diverse representation in the development of standards to guide open data practices like FAIR also threaten their broad and equitable uptake. And as the Global Indigenous Data Alliance has articulated, there are ethical gaps in their formulation and practice. Data sets that can be put to use for those beyond originally intended end users, can help us make sense and meaning of environmental and climate scenarios in new and useful ways.

As the urgency grows around climate change and other environmental crises, so too does the need for environmental datasets to be opened up for use beyond their original intent. Take for example, data collected by states and aggregated by EPA for permitting and compliance purposes, or datasets created by researchers (often with government funding). These could be used by other researchers, community organizations, journalists, and lawyers to advance more equitable and effective local solutions to environmental problems. Relatedly, community data can be better integrated into government data systems to strengthen their relevance to communities and improve community representation. In the wake of the Supreme Court's recent ruling on West Virginia vs. EPA, it is more critical than ever that environmental governance systems leverage as much existing data and as many tools as possible to inform climate action, including expanding evidence on the drivers and impacts of climate change, as well as the effects of climate policy and decisions.

In creating such data, and the infrastructure needed to make them truly accessible, usable, and inclusive, it is important to integrate diverse data sources, with data coming from communities, researchers, civil society, and government. Such integration would allow for a greater variety of potential uses by these actors.

Data from communities and civil society can provide highly localized details about environmental change over time, socio-environmental impacts, and time-sensitive depictions of place and experience. It can also help identify gaps, both in terms of data itself and knowledge not adequately captured by existing datasets. But creating and using community data can be an uphill battle. Its collection can be resource-intensive and capacity-reliant, expensive to maintain, and complicated to put to use for environmental compliance, regulation, and enforcement. In order to reduce the burden and resources needed to collect and maintain community data, recent conversations in both environmental and open fields have sought to prioritize data fit for purpose and data that is good enough for intended use cases. While such data are helpful for such narrow intents and purposes, their value often ends at community or media engagement, education, and co-management, or baseline research. OEDP asks: how can these data be collected, structured, and shared so that they can be better integrated into environmental decision-making?

On the other hand, existing datasets from government, industry, and research could be powerful tools for environmental action at many levels—both on their own and paired with the detail that community data can provide. To ensure broad findability, access, and use of such data, however, we need to design data infrastructures with multiple uses and stakeholders in mind, and that can accommodate and promote open practices. For instance, Fair Tech Collective’s database of benzene emissions consolidates data reported by oil refineries to the EPA to help communities understand their exposure to the carcinogen, as well as to support research on benzene’s environmental health impacts. And data used by the IPCC or National Climate Assessment, if made more understandable and usable, might be applied at more local scales to support cities, tribes, and states in more effective climate planning. Pairing these with locally-collected community data and places for community input in the process of data use could also help ensure equity and inclusion in planning processes.

 Projects such as OEDP’s Beyond Compliance Network (in partnership with Fair Tech Collective and Intertidal Strategies) aim to modernize environmental data systems and democratize knowledge creation and use by investigating and re-thinking approaches to management and sharing of compliance data. The obstacles faced in this process are immense, systemic, and nuanced. They include, for example, a common reliance on personal relationships in order to find or understand data, gaps in metadata and data dictionaries, and large variations in data’s scale and granularity that make it difficult to integrate.

In August 2022, OEDP will host a Brain Trust on building the cultural capacity and infrastructure around environmental data that can be used beyond its original intent. We’re interested in interrogating and building upon existing systems and structures, and how these can be paired with open practices and values to enable data reuse and solve environmental problems. To this end, we’ll focus on the following questions:

  1. What kinds of datasets do non-governmental actors use or want to use for environmental and climate research, assessment, management, and compliance?
  2. What challenges do they run into? What features of data and infrastructure (digital, human, or policy) have facilitated or could facilitate this use?
  3. What approaches for expanding data’s use have worked, and why? How can these approaches be adapted or scaled for different kinds of data and uses?
  4. How can government data infrastructures better integrate data from communities, researchers, and other non-governmental actors? What needs to happen to make this possible?
  5. What improvements can be made by individuals and what will need more collective action, consensus-building, or infrastructure development?

If you are interested in participating in this Brain Trust, please contact Policy & Research Associate Emelia Williams.