Why environmental agencies should be receptive to the use of external data
In August 2020, I was asked by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) to participate in a virtual discussion with agency (fed, state, tribal, local) officials and NGOs. The call was meant to contextualize ELI reports for the Environmental Protection Agency on citizen science programs. I was specifically asked to kick off the first discussion on the call by providing an outside agency perspective encouraging agencies to be receptive to the use of external data.
The ELI reports  touched on many of the core pieces of why agencies should be receptive to the use of external data such as filling gaps, broadening who has a say in environmental decisions, adding capacity in areas where there aren’t enough resources for robust monitoring. The additional thoughts I added to prompt discussion are as follows:
- There are multiple truths. Scientific data can provide factual information, but the contextual information around that data can show how people are experiencing an event differently. For instance — how they are being affected through what they see, smell, hear, and feel at different times of the day. We can most clearly see the overall impact on the environment and our communities by considering contextual information and using a diversity of approaches, methods, and reasonings.
- There is a value in trend data that has not yet been fully realized. The richness of trend data can help agencies in forecasting areas where there might be future interventions required. For instance, water quality monitoring groups that report “out of pattern” events in a river system can help agencies in understanding where to target limited resources and perhaps put agency citizen science programs to work. If designed well and in partnership with agencies, trend data systems can reduce the QA/QC burden on agencies.
- There are forms of data that have clear pathways to use by agencies — geospatial, photographic, and public commentary for instance. However, data quality, especially from the emerging landscape of sensor projects, is largely a new frontier for agencies. Considering the urgency of our current environmental situation, employing and engaging the new generation of DIY sensors can allow agencies to re-think how they engage with the public, who shares the same goal of a healthy environment. Similar to how agencies engage people in collecting and interpreting data as citizen or community scientists — there are lots of people ready to partner with agencies on making sure that the technology being created is useful.
- The more receptive (especially in how new tools are approved, adopted, recommended) agencies can be to technology innovation, the more tools agencies will have at their disposal to create relevant solutions to the problems that agency employees face. For instance, environmental law is complex and hard to navigate so potentially building new non-administrative systems for data intake will create easier ways for agencies/technology developers/others to navigate acceptance of trend data — even if data coming from tools needs to fit into agency standards.
- Working with data from outside agencies can demonstrate reflectiveness towards the core mandate of agencies — environmental and human health protection. Rather than being a gatekeeper of this responsibility — this instead means acting as a conduit in partnership with the public towards enforcement, regulation, and ultimately protection. This can help to potentially (re)build trust in our federal agencies.