The Open Data/Environmental Justice Connection

The Riffle is an open-source data logger that can be put into streams to measure water quality. Photo Credit: Public Lab
The Riffle is an open-source data logger that can be put into streams to measure water quality. Photo Credit: Public Lab

Open data and transparency are becoming full-fledged movements in government, and initiatives such as the Sunlight Foundation and Chile’s Intelligent Citizen project demonstrate that data transparency has as much to do with civic engagement as with accountability. 

These flows of data, however, are increasingly portrayed as one-way streets. Open data initiatives seem to assume that all data is born in the hallowed halls of government, industry and academia, and that open data is primarily about convincing such institutions to share it to the public. 

It is laudable when institutions with important datasets — such as campaign finance, pollution or scientific data — see the benefit of opening it to the public. But why do we assume unilateral control over data production?

The revolution in user-generated content shows the public has a great deal to contribute – and to gain—from the open data movement. Likewise, citizen science projects that solicit submissions or “task completion” from the public rarely invite higher-level participation in research –let alone true collaboration. 

This has to change. Data isn’t just something you’re given if you ask nicely, or a kind of community service we perform to support experts. Increasingly, new technologies make it possible for local groups to generate and control data themselves — especially in environmental health. Communities on the front line of pollution’s effects have the best opportunities to monitor it and the most to gain by taking an active role in the research process. 

DIY Data

Luckily, an emerging alliance between the maker/Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement and watchdog groups is starting to challenge the conventional model.  

The Smart Citizen project, the Air Quality Egg and a variety of projects in the Public Lab network are recasting members of the general public as actors in the framing of new research questions and designers of a new generation of data tools.

The Riffle, a <$100 water quality sensor built inside of hardware-store pipe, can be left in a creek near an industrial site to collect data around the clock for weeks or months. In the near future, when pollution happens – like the ash spill in North Carolina or the chemical spill in West Virginia – the public will be alerted and able to track its effects without depending on expensive equipment or distant labs.  

This emerging movement is recasting environmental issues not as intractably large problems, but up-close-and-personal health issues — just what environmental justice (EJ) groups have been arguing for years. The difference is that these new initiatives hybridize such EJ community organizers and the technology hackers of the open hardware movement. Just as the Homebrew Computer Club’s tinkering with early prototypes led to the personal computer, a new generation of tinkerers sees that their affordable, accessible techniques can make an immediate difference in investigating lead in their backyard soil, nitrates in their tap water and particulate pollution in the air they breathe.

These practitioners see that environmental data collection is not a distant problem in a developing country, but an issue that anyone in a major metropolitan area, or an area affected by oil and gas extraction, faces on a daily basis. Though underserved communities are often disproportionally affected, these threats often transcend socioeconomic boundaries.  

It’s not the data, it’s the people

Importantly, this environmental justice/maker trend acknowledges that the key piece of the puzzle isn’t necessarily the data itself –or even the technology, though both are important. The core of many DIY environmental projects is the communities they build and their new ability to challenge industry data with new-found expertise and better information. 

The challenge now is whether government agencies, academia and industry can respond to, and successfully interface with, these new forms of expertise and the communities which wield them.

About the Author

Jeffrey Warren is a co-founder and Research Director for Public Lab, a non-profit group that develops and applies open-source tools to environmental problems and exploration. He is a fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and is on the board of the Open Hardware Association.


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