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EDGI’s Data Program Examines the Role of Environmental Data Governance Through the Lenses of Power, Justice, and Equity

Illustration courtesy of CascadiaJS

By Kelsey Breseman

When people think of EDGI, often the first thing they think of is the Data Rescue movement: an impressive, urgent, and fear-driven bid to save as much scientific data as possible to non-government archives in the wake of the Trump election. This archiving work is a big part of EDGI’s origin story: An email went around to a small—and then rapidly much larger—group of researchers suggesting a cross-disciplinary effort to save the institutional knowledge our government holds about the environment before it could be tampered with by the incoming administration. As 2017 began, the idea of massively archiving scientific data began to blossom, taking much of EDGI’s growing capacity and garnering public attention.

Data Rescue was a runaway success, contributing to the largest-ever end of term archive and involving hundreds of people through dozens of data-saving events. It was even on the Daily Show in early 2017. But as the administration changed hands and the actual rate of change to government sites slowed, the urgency of data archiving waned. This created space for EDGI to ask deeper questions: Why had this data been so vulnerable? How might we make the data systems we rely on more resilient? And what about the data itself—how was it created, by whom, and for whom?

In the intervening years, and with the generous and flexible support of our funders the Packard and Doris Duke Foundations, EDGI has taken deliberate steps to examine and reframe its data work, beyond just the frantic saving of data, to center environmental justice, participatory data work, and data resilience.

Now, EDGI’s data program examines the role of environmental data and its governance through the lenses of power, justice, and equity: Which communities are invited to participate in environmental data’s production and management, in what ways, and which are not. This spans on-the-ground concerns such as access and data portability, as well as more theoretical work at the level of data protocols, tech ethics, and centralization. The purpose of working at these two levels is to have a sense of both the current challenges to good data-based environmental governance and of the potential scope of an idealized data-centric system of governance.

The two primary projects through which EDGI approaches this work are:

Environmental Enforcement Watch (EEW) is a collaboration with EDGI’s Environmental Data Justice Working Group. EEW explores open environmental datasets in partnership with community groups using data science tools.

Data Together is a mostly external-facing partnership led by EDGI. The group’s purpose is to examine models for distributed stewardship of data through community-led reading and discussion groups. Data Together conversations aim to decompose how decentralized and peer-to-peer web infrastructure can enable communities to access, discover, verify, and preserve data they care about.

What We Do and How To Get Involved:

EDGI’s data program works to insert justice- and community-centric values and principles into conversations around the governance of data, especially environmental data.

For example, we create and support:

  • Media buzz around failures in the enforcement of environmental protection laws, through stories shaped by impacted communities and reaching and putting pressure on the regulatory bodies surrounding those people;
  • White papers outlining principles for improved environmental data collection that can be passed to the EPA to influence how regulation is carried out;
  • Conversations with CTOs and other core strategic members of technology development processes highlighting issues of justice and accountability not ordinarily considered in the decision-making phases of technology development, improving the eventual impact of the technology products; and
  • Principles and processes for data technologies to help operationalize values and ethics in technology design.

As ever, EDGI remains a primarily volunteer-driven effort. So if this work appeals to you, please don’t hesitate to reach out! From coders to movement organizers to everything in between, EDGI’s cross-disciplinary data program would love to work with you to pursue environmental data justice. Find us at envirodgi@protonmail.com.