On 29th April, I gave a talk in the Wilson Center in Washington DC on ‘Environmental Information – the Roles of Experts and the Public. The event was organised by Lea Shanley, who is heading the ‘Commons Lab‘ initiative of the center, and Dr Jay Benforado, from the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) provided a response to the talk.

The talk is based on a forthcoming chapter in a book that will be the final output of the EveryAware project, and I can share a copy of it if you email me.

I described the content of the talk as:  ‘Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision-making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2012); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.

Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision-making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information systems and to citizen science.’

The talk (and the chapter) are building on the themes that I discussed in a presentation during the Eye on Earth user conference in Dublin in 2013, and earlier talks in Oxford Transport Studies UnitUCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and at University College Dublin School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy in 2010 (see also my reflection from the Eye on Earth summit in Abu Dhabi in 2011). In the talk I covered some of the legal frameworks about production and use of environmental information, including laws and international agreements, as well as using specific demonstrations of the information systems themselves, as to demonstrate the practice. I also tried to suggest the trends that are behind the changes in the eras, and levels of education is quite central.

On reflection, the 4 years that passed since I started thinking about the ‘eras of environmental information‘ allowed me to think how to communicate them, and I hope for the better. It also made the writing up of the chapter easier, as the responses and comments that I received in previous talks provided the needed feedback and peer review to structure the text.

Although I was setting specific dates as markers for the eras, the reality is that the boundaries are more flexible and the transition was over time – it is especially difficult for the latest transition of public participation in environmental information production.

The talk was followed by a discussion that lasted almost 45 minutes, and during the discussion, the common issue of data quality of citizen science data or the interesting point about the issue of dissemination as Rob Baker noted: ‘Is the role of experts as facilitators extend to dissemination of information or just collection? Who closes the loop? ‘  (https://twitter.com/rrbaker/statuses/461157624592203776) or Susan Wolfinbarger question about citizen science: ‘How do you know when the quality of a #citsci project is bad?’  (https://twitter.com/SWolfinbarger/statuses/461166886043262976)

The presentation and discussion were captured on YouTube, below

and the slides are available on SlideShare

Kate Chapman posted an interesting reflection to the talk over at H.O.T website.

The news that Roger Tomlinson, famously ‘the father of GIS‘, passed away few days ago are sad – although I met him only few times, it was an honour to meet one of the pioneers of my field.

A special delight during my PhD research was to discover, at the UCL library the proceedings of the first ever symposium on GIS. Dr Tomlinson studied towards a PhD at UCL, and probably that is how the copy found its way to the library. It was fairly symbolic for me that the symposium was titled ‘environmental information systems’. See my earlier comment about the terminology: Geographic information or Environmental Information.

For a long time I wanted to share the copy, and today is a suitable day to share it. So here is the copy – thanks to the help of Michalis Vitos who converted it to PDF.

EIS-Tomlinson

 

The Eye on Earth first user conference, which was in Dublin at the beginning of March, was as interesting as the first summit in Abu Dhabi, in December 2011. Significantly, in the conference the role of citizen science in environmental monitoring and the creation of useful environmental information was highlighted from the opening address by Prof Jacquie McGlade, the head of the European Environment Agency to the final statement of the meeting which stated that the Eye on Earth Network see “citizen science as an important source of knowledge within the diversity of knowledge communities“.

I’ve been following the Eye on Earth network with a lot of interest: with the combination of environmental information for public access, use of GIS and the integration of citizen science, it is dealing with many of my research interests over the past 15 years. I was not surprised to find the conference and the discussions during it very stimulating.

As the conference progressed and more and more examples were given on how effortlessly information can be accessed through “the cloud” I became aware that there was a hidden partner to the whole process and that it’s role is generally being ignored: computing doesn’t happen in the Ether, and does have environmental consequences – as the New York Times investigation explored. It was valuable to hear about Microsoft environmental activities at the end of the conference, but that was done in not a completely connected way. So the issue with environmental information is that there is a need to use the systems that are being used to collect, manage and share environmental information into exemplars of  ‘deep green computing’. A lot of the data is paid for by public sector bodies, and contracts can include demands on increasing environmental performances as an integral part of dealing with this information. Otherwise, the information itself can be part of the problem instead of part of the solution!

It is possible, even at a small scale. In Mapping for Change, we needed to change hosting provider and it was clear to us that we need to do things right, so we set out to look for a provider that is reliable but also respecting the values of the business itself (both social and environmental). This has reduced the number of possible providers, but we are now switching over to ecohosting who demonstrate that it is possible to provide web hosting with suitable environmental standards.

As noted  in the previous post, which focused on the linkage between GIS and Environmental Information Systems,  the Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’.  Throughout the summit, two aspects of public access to environmental information were discussed extensively. On the one hand, Principle 10 of the Rio declaration from 1992 which call for public access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice was frequently mentioned including the need to continue and extend its implementation across the world. On the other, the growing importance of citizen science and crowdsourced  environmental information was highlighted as a way to engage the wider public in environmental issues and contribute to the monitoring and understanding of the environment. They were not presented or discussed as mutually exclusive approaches to public involvement in environmental decision making, and yet, they do not fit together without a snag – so it is worth minding the gap.

As I have noted in several talks over the past 3 years (e.g. at the Oxford Transport Research Unit from which the slides above were taken), it is now possible to define 3 eras of public access to environmental information. During the first era, between the first UN environmental conference, held in Stockholm in 1972, were the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) was established, and the Earth conference in Rio in 1992, environmental information was collected by experts, to be analysed by experts, and to be accessed by experts. The public was expected to accept the authoritative conclusions of the experts. The second period, between 1990s and until the mid 2000s and the emergence of Web 2.0, the focus turned to the provision of access to the information that was collected and processed by experts. This is top-down delivery of information that is at the centre of Principle 10:

‘Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided’

Notice the two emphasised sections which focus on passive provision of information to the public – there is no expectation that the public will be involved in creating it.

With the growth of the interactive web (or Web 2.0), and the increase awareness to citizen or community science , new modes of data collection started to emerge, in which the information is being produced by the public. Air pollution monitoring, noise samples or traffic surveys – all been carried out independently by communities using available cheap sensors or in collaboration with scientists and experts. This is a third era of access to environmental information: produced by experts and the public, to be used by both.

Thus, we can identify 3 eras of access to environmental information: authoritative (1970s-1990s), top-down (1990s-2005) and collaborative (2005 onward).

The collaborative era presents new challenges. As in previous periods, the information needs to be at the required standards, reliable and valid. This can be challenging for citizen science information. It also need to be analysed, and many communities don’t have access to the required expertise (see my presentation from the Open Knowledge Foundation Conference in 2008 that deals with this issue). Merging information from citizen science studies with official information is challenging. These and other issues must be explored, and – as shown above – the language of Principle 10 might need revision to account for this new era of environmental information.

The Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’. The summit was an opportunity to evaluate the development of Principle 10 from Rio declaration in 1992 as well as Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 both of which focus on environmental information and decision making.  The summit’s many speakers gave inspirational talks – with an impressive list including Jane Goodall highlighting the importance of information for education; Mathis Wackernagel updating on the developments in Ecological Footprint; Rob Swan on the importance of Antarctica;  Sylvia Earle on how we should protect the oceans; Mark Plotkin, Rebecca Moore and Chief Almir Surui on indigenous mapping in the Amazon and man others. The white papers that accompany the summit can be found in the Working Groups section of the website, and are very helpful updates on the development of environmental information issues over the past 20 years and emerging issues.

Interestingly, Working Group 2 on Content and User Needs is mentioning the conceptual framework of Environmental Information Systems (EIS) which I started developing in 1999 and after discussing it in the GIS and Environmental Modelling conference in 2000, I have published it as the paper ‘Public access to environmental information: past, present and future’ in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems in 2003.

Discussing environmental information for a week made me to revisit the framework and review the changes that occurred over the past decade.

First, I’ll present the conceptual framework, which is based on 6 assertions. The framework was developed on the basis of a lengthy review in early 1999 of the available information on environmental information systems (the review was published as CASA working paper 7). While synthesising all the information that I have found, some underlying assumptions started to emerge, and by articulating them and putting them together and showing how they were linked, I could make more sense of the information that I found. This helped in answering questions such as ‘Why do environmental information systems receive so much attention from policy makers?’ and ‘Why are GIS appearing in so many environmental information systems ?’. I have used the word ‘assertions’ as the underlying principles seem to be universally accepted and taken for granted. This is especially true for the 3 core assumptions (assertions 1-3 below).

The framework offers the following assertions:

  1. Sound knowledge, reliable information and accurate data are vital for good environmental decision making.
  2. Within the framework of sustainable development, all stakeholders should take part in the decision making processes. A direct result of this is a call for improved public participation in environmental decision making.
  3. Environmental information is exceptionally well suited to GIS (and vice versa). GIS development is closely related to developments in environmental research, and GIS output is considered to be highly advantageous in understanding and interpreting environmental data.
  4. (Notice that this is emerging from combining 1 and 2) To achieve public participation in environmental decision making, the public must gain access to environmental information, data and knowledge.
  5. (Based on 1 and 3) GIS use and output is essential for good environmental decision making.
  6. (Based on all the others) Public Environmental Information Systems should be based on GIS technologies. Such systems are vital for public participation in environmental decision making.

Intriguingly, the Eye on Earth White Paper notes ‘This is a very “Geospatial” centric view; however it does summarise the broader principles of Environmental Information and its use’. Yet, my intention was not to develop a ‘Geospatial’ centric view – I was synthesising what I have found, and the keywords that I have used in the search did not include GIS. Therefore, the framework should be seen as an attempt to explain the reason that GIS is so prominent.

With this framework in mind, I have noticed a change over the past decade. Throughout the summit, GIS and ‘Geospatial’ systems were central – and they were mentioned and demonstrated many times. I was somewhat surprised how prominent they were in Sha Zukang speech (He is the Undersecretary General, United Nations, and Secretary General Rio +20 Summit). They are much more central than they were when I carried out the survey, and I left the summit feeling that for many speakers, presenters and delegates, it is now expected that GIS will be at the centre of any EIS. The wide acceptance does mean that initiatives such as the ‘Eye on Earth Network’ that is based on geographic information sharing is now possible. In the past, because of the very differing data structures and conceptual frameworks, it was more difficult to suggest such integration. The use of GIS as a lingua franca for people who are dealing with environmental information is surely helpful in creating an integrative picture of the situation at a specific place, across multiple domains of knowledge.

However, I see a cause for concern for the equivalence of GIS with EIS. As the literature in GIScience discussed over the years, GIS is good at providing snapshots, but less effective in modelling processes, or interpolating in both time and space, and most importantly, is having a specific way of creating and processing information. For example, while GIS can be coupled with system dynamic modelling (which was used extensively in environmental studies – most notably in ‘Limits to Growth’) it is also possible to run such models and simulations in packages that don’t use geographic information – For example, in the STELLA package for system dynamics or in bespoke models that were created with dedicated data models and algorithms. Importantly, the issue is not about the technical issues of coupling different software packages such as STELLA or agent-based modelling with GIS. Some EIS and environmental challenge might benefit from different people thinking in different ways about various problems and solutions, and not always forced to consider how a GIS play a part in them.

In 2009, Ud Doron, who studied on our MSc in Environmental Systems Engineering developed a research project together with Tse-Hui Teh, who is doing her PhD on urban water issues. The project was co-supervised by Sarah Bell.

The focus of the project was on a series of participatory workshops to understand the relationships between urban residents and water technology. The workshops explored the perceptions and actions of environmentally aware citizens. Ud also explored the use of environmental information by the participants of the workshops.  The output of this work is now written and published in the Water and Environment Journal.

The paper is titled Public engagement with water conservation in London

The abstract is:

Understanding water demand and consumers’ capacity for change is essential in underpinning water demand management and water efficiency programmes. This paper presents the outcomes of a qualitative study, which used discussion groups relating to water infrastructure with environmentally aware citizens in five London boroughs in the Lower Lea River Basin. The results showed a subtle interaction between users, water and technology. Users are generally unaware of their own water consumption. Individual perceptions of changes in water behaviour are constrained by habit and lack of knowledge about what changes can be made and how. Knowledge of environmental information was described as the inspiration behind making any changes. The paper concludes that access to information about water resources, infrastructure and conservation measures should be enhanced because although information sources are abundant, participants claimed they were inaccessible without considerable effort. Finally, an emphasis should also be put on helping the public form a more substantial part in environmental decisions.

and the paper is accessible in the early view section of the  Water and Environment Journal http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-6593.2011.00256.x/full

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EveryAware is a three-year research project, funded under the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

The project’s focus is on the development of Citizen Science techniques to allow people to find out about their local environmental conditions, and then to see if the provision of this information leads to behaviour change.

The abstract of the project highlights the core topics that will be covered:

‘The enforcement of novel policies may be triggered by a grassroots approach, with a key contribution from information and communication technology (ICT). Current low-cost sensing technologies allow the citizens to directly assess the state of the environment; social networking tools allow effective data and opinion collection and real-time information-spreading processes. Moreover theoretical and modelling tools developed by physicists, computer scientists and sociologists allow citizens to analyse, interpret and visualise complex data sets.

‘The proposed project intends to integrate all crucial phases (environmental monitoring, awareness enhancement, behavioural change) in the management of the environment in a unified framework, by creating a new technological platform combining sensing technologies, networking applications and data-processing
tools; the Internet and the existing mobile communication networks will provide the infrastructure hosting this platform, allowing its replication in different times and places. Case studies concerning different numbers of participants will test the scalability of the platform, aiming to involve as many citizens as possible thanks to
low cost and high usability. The integration of participatory sensing with the monitoring of subjective opinions is novel and crucial, as it exposes the mechanisms by which the local perception of an environmental issue, corroborated by quantitative data, evolves into socially-shared opinions, and how the latter, eventually, drives behavioural changes. Enabling this level of transparency critically allows an effective communication of desirable environmental strategies to the general public and to institutional agencies.’

The project will be coordinated by Fondazione ISI (Institute for Scientific Interchange) and the Physics department at Sapienza Università di Roma. Other participants include the L3S Research Center at the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Universität, Hannover, and finally the Environmental Risk and Health unit at the Flemish Institute of Technological Research (VITO).

At UCL, I will run the project together with Dr Claire Ellul. We will focus on Citizen Science, the interaction with mobile phones for data collection and understanding behaviour change. We are looking for a PhD student to work on this project so, if this type of activity is of interest, get it touch.

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