Reflections on Eye on Earth summit (2): the 3 eras of public access to environmental information

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.

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mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

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