First 120 Days Memo: Creating an Environmental Data Dialogue with Community Data Sources in Support of Executive Orders

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First 120 Days Memo: Creating an Environmental Data Dialogue with Community Data Sources in Support of Executive Orders

Executive Summary

This memo highlights Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP) findings for incoming political appointees and career civil servants to include in the 2021 work plans for advancing the public environmental data ecosystem. With an increasing landscape of data politicization and the privatization of digital platforms, the potential to compromise civic trust is high. If we do not take action, government decision-makers risk losing rich streams of information and communities become more vulnerable to mis/disinformation. 

  • We have an opportunity to rebuild trust within society through improving upon, augmenting, and recognizing new types of data within our existing public data infrastructures [1]. In doing so we can build confidence in environmental decisions that impact us all.
  • Communities and NGOs are creating new streams of data from non-standardized sensors and processes. These datasets offer hyper-local information that will become essential in advancing the climate change and environmental justice goals laid out by the incoming administration.
  • The best support for evidence-based policy is to encourage the use of third sector [2] unstructured data and other types of collected information through community and citizen science, and open hardware initiatives. 
  • Our capacity to link new forms of information for better social, cultural, economic, and political understanding is lagging. Advancing digital public infrastructure will require technical and economic investment that responds to the demands of new data users and multiple information sources.
  • Open data legal statutes must go further to ensure permanently free access to layers of data interpretation and representation, and transparency in how algorithms are developed and influenced. Without resources and continued legal support, the infrastructure we use to make evidence-based policy will become piecemeal privatized, the data compromised, or both.
  • There are immediate investments to be made:
  • ~ 1. In co-created learning and implementation processes for federal employees and communities around data usability
  • ~ 2. Through the creation of a government-led grants framework to improve data dialogue [3] between government data stewards, collectors, and users and community data stewards, collectors, and users
  • ~ 3. Conducting an assessment of the continued legal support for the free, accessible use and development of open data, and its infrastructure including interpretation and visualization layers.
The Time is Now

Advances in low-cost and open-source sensors and increased public interest in environmental monitoring have accelerated the growth of new and diverse data streams. Yet, our government’s capacity to understand and incorporate publically beneficial third sector data sources is lagging. Deferred maintenance, data politicization, and the privatization of digital platforms exacerbate our ability to make use of rich and extensive data networks and compromises civic trust. The current work on APIs, metadata standardization, and best practices in data management as the pathways for integrating these new streams of data fall short of recognizing the intrinsic value of these sources of information and their meaning within communities. However, we have the opportunity to update our systems and to provide greater access and transparency with government data.

There is now support for creating data exchanges between government and third sector groups: The Biden-Harris Administration prioritizes establishing new pathways for civic data interaction in its Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crises at Home and Abroad and Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. Investing in data access and bi-directional data flow will become part of agencies’ modernization efforts to improve public representation and deliver on environmental justice and climate change initiatives. Now is the time for agencies to build interoperable prototypes between government and locally collected environmental data from third sector groups.

Getting to Evidence-Based Policy Making

We now live in a data-driven society. Individual decisions -- whether made by a person or automated -- will be increasingly based on machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). And, as part of the push to make evidence-based policy and regulation the norm, well-integrated government datasets and third sector data will be valuable resources for the ML and AI algorithms that require significant amounts of training and reference data to be useful [4]. 

We are at an inflection point: without legal mandates and insistence on open and raw datasets, permanently free and usable access, and transparency in how algorithms are developed and influenced, the infrastructure we use to make evidence based policy will become piecemeal privatized, the data compromised, or both. Government funders must vigilantly guard public and government access to data and the layers needed to store, process, and interpret that data when entering into partnerships with non-government and commercial entities. This is important not just for current protection of data as a public good, but for use upstream and in the future. For instance, if a partnership brokered between government and industry now, does not account for legally protected access by data contributors in the future, we risk loss of access and ownership by both data contributors and users (who many times are one in the same). The best support for evidence-based policy and an alternative to privatization: support third sector unstructured data and other types of collected information through community science, citizen science, and open hardware initiatives.

Third Sector Data Dialogues

Inclusive, interactive data systems can be achieved and will be a foundational means of increasing environmental equity for communities, especially those experiencing past environmental injustices. Open data infrastructure that is designed to be participatory will increase public trust and government transparency -- our most important tools to counter attempts at dis/misinformation on issues of environmental health and protection. Government and third sector data dialogues are critical to building effective data infrastructure. Successful data infrastructure will be measured in how efficiently it handles multi-directional flows of information while: 

  • Serving multiple types of users, with widely varying expertise. Stakeholders that could benefit from this data include concerned communities, environmental regulators, and private sector actors capable of reducing pollution;
  • Incorporating quantitative and qualitative data from numerous sources with disparate temporalities, and 
  • Establishing performance on existing environmental metrics while fostering the development of new metrics that are meaningful to, and actionable for, diverse constituencies and geographies.
Recommendations

Meeting the demands of evidence-based policymaking and community inclusion and support will take a significant investment in government data infrastructure and re-imagined partnerships with third sector and other data generators. If we do not take action, government decision-makers risk losing rich streams of information and communities become more vulnerable to mis/disinformation. OEDP recommends the following immediate investments:

  • Co-created learning and implementation processes for federal employees and communities that increase data dialogue -- bridges between federal data systems and community-sourced data -- and data usability for climate change adaptation, migration, and mitigation and environmental justice initiatives.
  • ~Get started now: Connect with OEDP to organize learning workshops for your office or agency around third sector data sources. 
  • A government-led grants framework to support data dialogues between government data stewards, collectors, and users and community data stewards, collectors, and users. Creating initial investments in inclusive and interactive data systems can lead to new solutions towards strengthening environmental governance. 
  • ~Get started now: Create a pilot program with several select communities to test a granting program that provides resources for workshopping existing problem areas and co-creating data workflows between sectors.
  • Continued legal support for the free, accessible use and development of open data, and its infrastructure including interpretation and visualization layers.
  • ~Get started now: Evaluate open data laws, especially in relation to new forms of data input (i.e. sensor technology) through public and private partnerships, and identify 1) whether they are achieving desired use and, 2) what potential upstream scenarios might not currently be accounted for.

The time is now to focus on networking new forms of information, create permanently free access to layers of data interpretation and representation, rebuild trust within society through improving upon our existing public data infrastructures, and ensure a long-term commitment for evidence-based policy-making.

Notes:

[1] Such as census data, climate modeling data, environmental regulation, enforcement and management data.

[2] This memo refers to third sector data as information generated using both formal and informal processes from NGOs, community science, and citizen science efforts, often incorporating DIY, low-cost and open source sensors at a local, hyper-granular scale.

[3] Data dialogues are bridges created between federal data systems and community sourced data.

[4] Shanley, L. Fortson, L., Berger-Wolf, T., Crowston, K., Michelucci, P. (2021). “Imagine All the People: Citizen Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Computational Research” Computing Community Consortium

Download this memo as a PDF.

                                                                                                                    

The Open Environmental Data Project sees a future for scientific and environmental data in building collaborative and participatory systems for environmental management and protection. Through forging an innovation space for envisioning and testing how we better use scientific and environmental data and information, OEDP works in partnership with agencies and communities interested in upgrading environmental regulatory processes, data infrastructures, and research and development efforts related to climate change and environmental justice. See what OEDP is doing in support of the efforts described in this memo and if you’re ready to put this information to use, contact angela@openenvironmentaldata.org.