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Understanding the problem space: Intro + Part I, Funding
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July 13, 2020
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The Open Environmental Data Project is working towards a definition of the problem spaces in the open environmental data ecosystem. To accomplish this we had conversations with around 40 people globally who work for nonprofits/NGOs, government, private sector and academia and either use, produce or create products and services with environmental data. Over the next week, we will be rolling out a brief synthesis, organized loosely by theme, of the different systemic problems that slow down the progress of environmental monitoring for achieving the intended impact of more meaningful engagement of communities in policy decisions that affect them directly; enforcement of environmental law and regulation; and knowledge and sensemaking of environmental issues. Notably, we conducted this exercise and synthesis during some of the most egregious environmental regulation rollbacks in U.S. history, where the initial focus of our work is taking place (many of our examples are based in the State of Louisiana, which is widely known as a difficult and complex state for environmental regulation and protection).

The open environmental data ecosystem consists of many actors and stakeholders that either produce or use data to make authoritative or collaborative decisions on environmental issues ranging from enforcement of non-compliance for industry to permitting natural resource extraction on public lands to monitoring and managing wildlife on public lands. For example, a nonprofit/NGO might collect data, such as a photo with a GPS point, to highlight an environmental pollution concern and bring this to the media, lawyers or government officials in an effort to trigger an environmental study or even environmental enforcement. A small low-cost sensor company might deploy multiple sensors across an area to generate near real-time air quality feeds for consumers to keep informed about the health and status of the air they breathe. Local government might embed high-grade sensors to meet their monitoring needs for compliance reporting. Multilateral government organizations might create digital products and frameworks that aggregate data about biodiversity, climate change and other variables for governments to use in evaluating their progress towards the sustainable development goals.

It’s among the interaction between these actors and stakeholders that we are working towards a definition of the problems in those “data to impact” efforts. To reflect this, we’ve organized the synthesis by themes versus perspectives of those we spoke with. We intend this to be a resource for others, providing context for pivot points in changing the status quo and as a record of our journey through the problem spaces. To note, while we’ve highlighted a starting point for thinking about social constraints in a previous blog (the Environmental Data Maze), the complexity around social agreements (and the lack thereof) deserves more attention than we are able to deliver in the course of this blog series. We’ll keep plugging away at some of these issues in future writings.

Part I: Funding for environmental monitoring efforts

Funding, Regulation and Lawsuits

An outsized portion of funding for environmental monitoring is tied to regulatory standards instead of funding for ecological restoration. While both structures produce environmental monitoring activities, what they set out to find, measure, and prove is different. For example, in the state of Louisiana the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allocates more tax dollars towards issuing permits with environmental monitoring provisions, than actual ecological wetland restoration programs. Environmental monitoring as tied to regulatory standards means that the parties responsible for monitoring their own pollution have a different motive, which is to display that they have less impact on the environment than allowed by the permitting regime. In contrast, environmental monitoring as tied to ecological restoration serves the purpose of evaluating baseline indicators of landscape health in order to improve upon the landscape integrity.

Environmental monitoring is mandated by federal statutes/laws which are enforced through regulation. Within those federal statutes there are “citizen suit” provisions which allow citizens to bring a civil suit against a defendant to enforce those statutes/laws. If the citizen suit is successful, in that they demonstrate the defendant violated the law, then the court can issue a remedy inclusive of environmental monitoring. In very few cases, when the court does establish liability instead of settling out of court, the defendant could be issued a charge for further environmental monitoring. However from the perspective of organizations that initiate these citizen suits, their work is sometimes tied to the anticipated funding for environmental monitoring that comes from a settlement in their favor. If the case is lost, then these organizations are left without a revenue stream to continue their work.

Nonprofit Restrictions

U.S. 501(c)3’s that work and partner with communities, and many times are the legal representatives of multiple partner collaboratives, are beholden to deliverables and legal guidelines for the results of their work. Sometimes they don’t align with the best avenue for action. Since U.S. based 501(c)3’s have percentage limits on their ability to lobby (although they can advocate and educate around changing regulations and policies), as compared to industry which has free reign on lobbying expenditures, it requires nonprofits and community advocates to work within current systems instead of advocating to change the structure of how environmental data and information is accepted and incorporated.

Business Models

Yet to be designed are broadly impactful business models for creating and maintaining a useful open digital product for environmental data distribution and integration. While this is an issue within the larger world of open data and hardware, the space of environmental monitoring is complicated by the requirements around data protection and privacy (which we will explore in other sections). Though models such as Freemium and Fixed Price are potentially usable, these are applied as products for working with data, but not as a business model for collaborative ownership. Without clear business models, philanthropy doesn’t have a good road map for engaging in these initiatives.

Technology Innovation

While encouraging a robust innovation landscape around technology is important, philanthropy has increasingly focused resources and attention on funding new technological solutions to environmental problem-solving. From microplastics to urban air quality, the current trend in both private and government funding is to support innovation around new tools and technologies. In part, what this has created is an overabundance of environmental monitoring resources, yet significantly less consideration or attention for the context (social, regulatory and otherwise) these tools, and the resulting data, will be used in. For instance, providing new products for people to do block level monitoring of street flooding, but not having a strategy for how that data will integrate with management plans around flooding and resilience can be a useful educational and engagement tool, but falls short of creating an integrated data plan for usefulness beyond these activities.

We acknowledge there are many actors and stakeholders in this space that are actively working towards remediating these problems and if we haven’t already, we’d be interested in hearing from you. Please tweet @OpenEnviroData about your project or send us a note at info@openenvironmentaldata.org.

Next up: Part II:  Incentive structures for open and collaborative action