Exploring Web3’s Potential for Environmental Data Justice

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

By Kelsey Breseman

EDGI’s work on environmental data justice (EDJ) examines the intersectional areas of environmental justice and data justice: what are the assumptions behind the gathering and use of data for environmental governance? Who do those assumptions empower, and who do they marginalize? Control over data, especially data that touches on humans and health impacts, is an important form of power. Can communities and organizations use Web3’s tools for distributed data storage as an integral part of a strategy for data justice?

To answer that last question, Civic Science Fellow Kelsey Breseman has been working with Starling Lab (USC Shoah Foundation and Stanford Center for Blockchain Research Compression Forum) since February to develop the Archive Accelerator, a short-format intensive set of workshops designed to introduce Web3 concepts and technologies—with a healthy dose of skepticism—to people with diverse backgrounds and interests, especially those with a justice focus that lies outside of technology. There are two major objectives for this work:

  1. Discovery: Is this technology uniquely or particularly compelling for the data storage needs of justice-focused organizations? Through engagement with the technology over the course of the workshop, participants explored their interest in this technology.
  2. Field diversification: What are the major needs and concerns of these communities with respect to Web3 storage solutions? Through direct outreach to justice-focused organizations at this critical developmental stage of Web3 technologies, the workshops explored the design considerations that are most important to justice-focused groups, especially environmental justice-focused groups, and reflect those back to the developer community.

The pilot set of workshops consisted of five hours of content across four sessions:

  • Why Web3? Developing a Risk Assessment Framework
  • Hashing and Blockchains
  • Hands On with Web3 Storage
  • Environmental Impacts

The pilot run had 48 confirmed attendees from a range of organizations with backgrounds including environmental justice, journalism, and cultural heritage preservation. Participants were also joined by members of organizations working on Web3 technology (though none from the technologies used in the course) who engaged as participants, heard needs firsthand, and assisted in the delivery of course material.

Simply focusing the workshops around environmental justice advocates had an important impact on the curriculum: One of the four workshops was centered around the environmental impacts of Web3 technologies. This created a compelling framework for discussing Proof of Work versus Proof of Stake, cryptocurrency versus cryptoutilities, and the different challenges of accountability and transparency between Web2 and Web3 technologies for data storage.

The events were governed by EDGI’s expansive Code of Conduct, with a callout at each workshop for the critical importance of every attendee’s perspectives and needs. This is important to a highly participatory workshop style: Workshops were hands-on, including activities designed to develop intuitive understanding of technical concepts such as hashing and blockchains. The workshops were also discussion-heavy, leaving space for attendees to discuss their projects, ideas, and concerns with Web3 technologies and data openly with one another, with minimal facilitation.

Participants’ projects involved racial inequity, audio and visual records, environmental data, data journalism, and more. Participants expressed interest in learning more about what resources using Web3 would require, others’ use cases, need for additional storage options, censorship resistance, and data access for communities.

By the end of the workshop, the strongest feedback was a sense of gratitude to peers for co-creating a space of learning and shared values. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and a lot of interest about each other’s projects and data needs.

In a closing reflection exercise, participants noted much more nuanced concerns than at the beginning of the workshop. Overall, participants were roughly as interested in exploring Web3 technology at the end as when they entered the workshop, but they felt equipped to ask critical questions about the privacy aspects and root of trust, and understood fundamental concepts such as content addressing, hashes, the form and function of a blockchain, and the tradeoffs (including environmental tradeoffs) of different consensus mechanisms and mining schemas.

This set of workshops was a pilot of the Starling Lab Archive Accelerator, which is an ongoing project to help cohorts of participants develop knowledge and intuition around Web3 technologies. Based on this experience, future versions of the Accelerator will include additional content around privacy, signatures, and encryption, and more in-depth conversation around the real and cryptographic uses of the term “trust” and how each is brought to bear in this technology space.

Overall, this was a promising experiment in co-learning, both imparting Web3 knowledge to participants, and creating a space for participants to make clear their needs and concerns about Web3 technologies to Starling Lab, which holds ongoing conversations with developers at several of the major Web3 technologies and may be able to help influence the technologies’ growth.