Why open data is key to environmental action

ByHindustan Times
Jul 01, 2022 04:57 PM IST

The article has been authored by Veena Srinivasan, director, Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru; Sameer Shisodia, CEO, Rainmatter Foundation; and Jagdeesh Rao Puppala, former CEO, Foundation for Ecological Security.

Environmental campaigns are marked by rousing calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale. For human settlements to thrive in a climate-changing world, planning must be informed by a deep understanding of local ecologies and socio-economic contexts. But to achieve this, access to the right data is essential.

Environmental campaigns are marked by rousing calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale. A lot of organisations and individuals - from state actors and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives to grassroots initiatives - grapple with patchy information about the sector or region that they are involved in.
Environmental campaigns are marked by rousing calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale. A lot of organisations and individuals - from state actors and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives to grassroots initiatives - grapple with patchy information about the sector or region that they are involved in.

Addressing this bedrock issue of data access is vitally important at a time when the impacts of climate change are manifesting with increasing severity. It has pushed us into new territory where the contextual and traditional knowledge of farmers and indigenous communities needs to be integrated with better data. For example, a farmer producer organisation in Anantapur needs to know what changes to make to improve income and adapt to a water-stressed future, or a conservation group in Wayanad needs a list of native species for landscape restoration work.

Which is why there is an urgent need for a knowledge commons initiative that brings together various platforms to host environmental data across different categories as well as analytical tools that provide insights to both users and contributors. Such a platform needs to endeavour to make changemaking more effective by empowering users with the right set of tools and information and by enabling contributors to collaborate.

A lot of organisations and individuals - from state actors and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives to grassroots initiatives - grapple with patchy information about the sector or region that they are involved in. Despite the wealth of data that has been collected over the past decades, and research and analytics that exist, astoundingly little of it is available in forms that are easily accessible and consumable.

Just obtaining basic information from scratch can take up a significant chunk of time during the scoping phase and project budget, leaving very little to ideate and actually implement solutions. We end up squandering limited resources and thus hampering effective change. The other danger is that we try to force fit solutions, based on what works elsewhere, again undermining ‘transformative action’.

Heightened awareness of the climate crisis presents an opportunity for transformative change but climate investments are hampered by poor data and weak evidence.

Through processes such as the United Nations’ climate summits, there have been seismic shifts in how investments are being made in the climate space. Offset schemes such as the Carbon Development Mechanism exert pressure on corporations and industrialised nations to achieve net zero by investing in sequestration work in the Global South. But there are better and worse ways of doing this - an ambitious tree planting scheme can go disastrously wrong if it ends up depleting the water table in an arid region.

So, on the one hand, there’s money coming in. And on the other, there are multitudes of farmers in possession of time-tested local wisdom on climate adaptive strategies, and large numbers of small NGOs and research organisations with decades of experience with engaging communities and in-depth ecological knowledge. The question now is, can we better package the knowledge that is already available - scientific knowledge, many of which are locked in academic papers, experiential knowledge, which are held by grassroots, civil society organisations and tacit knowledge of local farmers & communities? Doing so can ensure that the kinds of responses that result from these larger global trends in investment are the right kind of responses and we minimise unintended consequences. A knowledge commons is an important step in this direction.

Broadly, three components would make up an ideal initiative on knowledge commons. First is the raw data itself. A lot of this exists already, in silos; bringing this together can help hone in on the gaps. Second, there needs to be a set of analytical tools that can provide insights like the India Observatory. The third component involves larger methods or playbooks, which would essentially function as a ‘hive mind’ feeding a collective intelligence about what works where and how.

The architecture of a comprehensive digital commons platform would evolve over time taking into account the concerns and requirements of contributors and users of data. It would need to factor in different discovery mechanisms and visualisations, allowing for different types of data like images, maps or toolkits.

But this requires intense collaboration. Collaboration has hitherto not been a big part of the non-profit sector culture in India. All this is premised on the belief that stakeholders would be incentivised to come together and engage with such a platform. To fuel its growth, it will be necessary to visibly demonstrate usability and clear value for anyone who engages -- whether it is greater reach, impact, visibility or credit.

For example, many NGOs carry out participatory mapping exercises, either on paper or using elementary digital tools. Augmenting their own primary data sets with other datasets and getting exposed to new methods of collection and data visualisation can make a world of a difference. When people find that a tool is useful and is generating and unlocking value to a large number of people - more and more contributors would volunteer.

Assurances that prevent misuse of data is also pivotal to the long-term success of a knowledge commons platform. Any such enterprise must prioritise creating standards in transparency around where the data comes from, the grade of it, whether it has been verified and by whom, and what it is being used for. For instance, datasets by government agencies on groundwater quality can vary, an inconsistency stemming from different definitions used for certain parameters like salinity. Transparency can thus not only foster trust, but clarity as well.

The governance of data holdings is a much larger discussion but it is integral that truly democratic principles underpin the production of data and the innovations behind it. Access and benefit sharing rules must ensure that the most disenfranchised communities are benefitted and any decision-making regarding data collection and sharing should involve informed consent. However, the digital divide is real, especially in the Indian context. So, a knowledge commons project must be bolstered by an ecosystem of actors who are able to build capacity regarding the usage of technological tools but also translate this data to a more colloquial vocabulary that is easy for people to understand and act upon.

In terms of government data, things appear to be opening up to some extent - the dataset released by the ministry of rural development under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) being the latest example. This is long overdue because public money is used to put together government data sets and therefore it should be obligatory to put it out as a commons. Since a lot of government data is poorly shared even between government departments, there is a role that the knowledge commons initiative can play in terms of synthesising and organising such scattered data into forms that are useful.

To solve the kind of planetary-level changes we talk about at climate summits, we need to have a common understanding of what humanity knows, and place it in a way that's accessible to everybody as opposed to being confined to proprietary databases or in proprietary tools and software which are accessible to a few. With climate change forcing a cross-disciplinary and cross-sectional push on us - there is momentum towards a commons initiative that is transparent, not owned or controlled by a few, and considers the diverse histories, ecologies and social contexts in India.

The article has been authored by Veena Srinivasan, director, Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru; Sameer Shisodia, CEO, Rainmatter Foundation; and Jagdeesh Rao Puppala, former CEO, Foundation for Ecological Security.

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