New Models Environmental Context: Part 2

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New Models Environmental Context: Part 2

Written by Shannon Dosemagen and Elizabeth Tyson

Explanation of the Interaction Diagram

The interaction diagram is a visual representation of how we are designing for systems change within our environmental policy, data and decision-making frameworks. In each section we provide an overarching description of near-term and longer-term goals that will lay the foundation for systems to shift in the way we approach our management of natural resources, conduct environmental protection, and generate healthy communities and landscapes. We will dive into the details of this diagram with a brain trust over the coming months.

Administrative State (left side of interaction diagram)

We begin this journey within the existing Administrative State through which laws, statutes and rules can limit the impact of the free market and its resultant harm on communities and the environment. The Administrative State and the ensuing power vested in branches of government are designed with checks and balances in mind. Between people and their government, and in the U.S., these checks and balances are executed through a representative democracy where the will of the public is communicated through a representative person who is responsible for communicating this to a congress of people that deliberate, write and vote to pass laws. Those laws are then enacted by the executive branch and the executive actions are able to be challenged based on judicial branch processes. This form of democracy can be found in many different permutations around the world.

However, these systems, like many human systems, are fraught with bias, coordination and jurisdictional problems that are easily exploited by natural resource extraction industry lobbyists. Data systems are now being built to provide a more accurate, near-real time and insightful understanding of bills in process and how they will impact a constituents bottom-line whether that be an NGO, oil company or a fast food restaurant [5]. Yet, these are expensive subscription services and there are few alternative tools available free of, or at a reduced, charge. 

The result is a fractured system where the primary opportunity for people to express their opinions is through structured public commentary portals. This system does have the power to alter the executive branch actions if the comment is structured powerfully and carefully, but acceptance of comments can be at the discretion of the people synthesizing the comments. And this is where we will begin our administrative state work, through improving upon legislative public commentary methods by prototyping a “Civic Voice Archive” using the Stakeholders, Individuals, Data and Evidence (SIDE) framework. Due to COVID-19 there is a historic opportunity to modernize the way Congress digests information from their congressional district offices. The Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP) is seizing this opportunity by piloting a SIDE event with congressional representatives and their constituents on environmental matters in 2-3 locations across the United States. This pilot will provide research and insight into the technical architecture for creating a prototype of a Civic Voice Archive that provides a qualitative contextual picture to situate lawmaking within. This prototype will provide a baseline understanding of environmental issues to the community via an archive in addition to adhering to standards that make the information usable and admissible to Congressional Committees when they deliberate bills and funding that impact U.S. communities. In the longer-term we anticipate building this model out so that other forms of public commentary (on rulemaking, etc) can have applicability outside of congressional rule-making, such as during the NEPA process.

Generative Environmental Framework (right side of the diagram) 

We can either continue working within our existing structures or we can design for the reformation of these structures. We are selecting to do both by engaging with the existing structures and recognizing that they are the result of many critical minds trying to compromise within a historical context AND that there is room to reform and create fertile ground for a new socio-technical innovation ecosystem. The overarching principle for this new system design is that governance principles exist in nested tiers. The argument being that we enact them at the smallest scale, for example by starting with a community of 100 people living within a mountaintop ecosystem. Then these governance tiers are replicated as the population scale grows, to the city, the state, and then to the nation. 

 Let’s begin with an example at the lowest-level tier in the diagram. In this new approach to a localized form of providing input to environmental policy, data and decision-making the group managing/living within the landscape must self-identify their boundaries whether that be through zip code, congressional district, ethnic group or some other form of human group boundary. The next step is to establish clear values and approaches to engaging with environmental resources (such as air, water, plants, animals and minerals) which must be cross-referenced and bound to the limits of nature -- an acknowledgment that if you value constant extraction of a resource to build upon your own property then your individual goals will be checked by the integrity of the ecosystem. A system is then developed and carried out by community members to audit member behavior. This is so that if/when an individual/business interest extracts a resource beyond the ability of the ecosystem to restore itself, then their community can audit how these actions are surpassing the integrity of the landscape, supported by scientific data and evidence from the environmental trend platform (described in the next section). 

After these baseline values are established the self-defined local group is required to match their rules governing the use of common goods to local needs and conditions. In instances where a resource is not common property (the bank of a river on private land), this point has to be solved for with approaches such as near-term systems for checks and balances to how rules are enacted around pollution, resource use and permitting, and long-term reallocation of public rights to natural resources. This principle in action requires a dynamic approach, allowing for an environmental trend platform to inform the local needs and conditions of the community and then match those to 1) the existing rules decided upon by the community and 2) the measure of ecological integrity. This is also fertile ground for creating a long-term local level check and balance to existing executive rules in action from the administrative state.

The last principle is that the self-defined group shares and agrees upon a common check and balance structure for knowledge and sense-making about the environment. This is the primary place of input of an environmental trend platform. It is the portion of the system that provides for a data-driven check-and-balance of the execution and the monitoring and evaluation of environmental decisions, rules and policies for each defined group. It is critical that the governance piece of this system is respected by both the generative environmental approach (communities, third/civic sector) and the administrative approach (government).

In the near term OEDP will be prototyping ways to create governance decisions through the semi-automation of practices in how groups can: (1) establish collective values that weigh and balance potential competing priorities, (2) build rules for engagement and structures for addressing these rules if they are severed within the group or by existing environmental law, (3) the ability for groups to observe the set of environmental rules they are working under and processes for how to engage with and shift these rules. In the long term OEDP will focus on framework shifts in our existing environmental legal canon to accommodate for these new governance principles. 

Interoperation Layers or Systemic Interaction Opportunities 

In this section, situated between administrative state and generative approach, we’ve moved up a population tier (e.g. out of a local context and into the space between regional, state and national systems). In this part of the system we envision a layer of mediating socio-technical approaches that will enable productive exchange of check and balance between these tiers. In the near-term this is where we will design around the involvement of individuals in brokering the check and balance activities between the administrative state and the generative environmental framework. 

There are three principles that interface between these two existing systems, the first is to provide accessible and low cost means for dispute resolution when the existing administrative legal canon contradicts the rules and sanctions created by the self-defined community in the generative environmental framework. The second principle is that the rulemaking rights and right to provide input on environmental matters of community members are respected by outside authorities. This principle must account for situations both where 1) land ownership is clearly defined, and 2) where a community has a clear right and/or stake in the issue at hand, but with no ownership (i.e. breathing air, drinking water). Within this principle, outside groups must make the case for their development interests (much like how industrial lobbyists do) but the guiding change is that as a private or government entity you have to explain why the action is good for the environmental commons not just (in addition to) the economic bottom-line

The last principle is to use graduated sanctions for rule violation. The usefulness of graduated sanctions in the case of environmental protection is that they can provide rapid and context-appropriate levies based on the significance of the offense (as indicated by those affected when rules are violated), coupled with an assessment of historical violations and the potential for future violations.

The Open Environmental Data Project will be building a prototype of what these layers of interoperation look like in practice when used as a mediating layer between the existing administrative state approach and the generative environmental framework. In the short-term it will require modeling how different prototypes will interact from each system, and how they work together to create a new system of checks and balances. In the longer-term, in an effort to reduce complexity, it will require prototyping new ideas and methodology for how to best optimize for these interactions that satisfy both the existing environmental legal cannon and the generative framework principles.

Environmental Trend Platform (bottom of model)

Currently, the Administrative State approach has little allowance for environmental data coming from non-verified/non-traditional technology (in various forms from analog to digital). This coincides with the increase of low cost and/or open hardware sensors that provide people with the tools to capture quantitative data. The Administrative approach primarily focuses on the necessity of quantitative data in decision-making. This is the case even in places where community input is required or welcomed, and where the combined use of quantitative data from non-verified/non-traditional technology and qualitative data could provide important indicators [6]. We argue that the move towards low cost, community level sensing is going to be an increasing trend and that demand will escalate for its usability. There are clear ways in which agencies can incorporate this type of quantitative data along with qualitative data (and information and knowledge) that provides local and historical experience and observations.

The goal of the environmental trend platform is to create a richer picture of local environmental conditions over time by allowing for a multitude of quantitative and qualitative data to be used in conjunction with other portions of the administrative and generative frameworks as described above. Currently there exist many efforts to harmonize datasets but for these efforts to be impactful in setting environmental policy, and in protection and management decisions, they need to be done in situ with governance processes. In addition, for a complete picture of local environmental conditions, the sources of the data must be multi-sectorial (civic/third sector, public, private). In the near-term, OEDP will engage in prototyping different socio-technical aspects of the platform, such as:

  • Coordinating and combining different sources and different types (dynamic, primary, big) of known quality [7] data.
  • Identifying allowances for different sources of environmental data weighted in their quality within current administrative processes.
  • Prototyping how data can serve as a legislative check and balance on environmental rules in action. 
  • Creating a way for environmental data on ecosystem services to be beneficial in collaborative and inclusive planning processes. 
  • Framing strategies for usability of coordinated data and the applicability of this data in different use scenarios.
  • Suggesting long-term strategies for simplification of government rules and information to allow for easier interaction and autonomous decision making for communities.
  • Prototyping frameworks for qualitative data incorporation and use as an essential contextual component alongside quantitative data.


[5] See for instance Tim Hwang’s FiscalNote is revolutionizing Washington lobbying with big data.

[6] Within “environmental data” we further define quantitative and qualitative as follows:

  1. Quantitative is the measure of something as it relates to its quantity. In data science it usually refers to numerical and structured data. It can be compared to the quantity of something (more, less) or usually assigned a numeric value. For instance, if we record the amount of particulate matter in the air every six hours and denote its combined value per the space ratio (parts per million of air), then over time we can understand that the particle 2.5 increased or decreased over time. In conservation practice it could mean the abundance and frequency in which a certain animal is noticed at a given location. In practice for OEDP we commonly encounter this type of data as coming from the physical and natural science fields which tend to produce high volumes of data usually reserved for scientific institutions and administrative functions. It usually requires a high-level of technical training to interpret and tends to hold the most meaning to those entrenched in scientific institutions. 
  2. Qualitative data provides description about the state of something. In data science it refers to unstructured and non-numerical data. It can be found in the form of raw observation notes, interviews or other types of video/audio recordings, and photographs. For instance a method used to capture this type of data, photovoice, is a way for an individual, provided with a camera, to take photos of what is important to them (perceived value). In the air quality data example noted above in “quantitative data” this approach could come in the form of an image taken of an elderly woman on a respirator. In the conservation approach it could mean recording a photo of the animal or describing how it appeared (slim, bruises, cuts). In practice for OEDP we refer to this type of data to indicate the ability to portray contextual information that can provide additional depth, meaning and perspective to environmental scenarios. Outside of public commentary and photographic evidence, less value is typically placed on this kind of data for administrative functions.  

[7] Known quality means that we are able to discern how/when/by whom/and why the data was collected within a data catalogue.