Chapter in Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice – Participatory GIS and community-based citizen science for environmental justice action

The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice has been published in mid-September. This extensive book, of 670 pages is providing an extensive overview of scholarly research on environmental justice

The book was edited by three experts in the area – Ryan Holifield from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Jayajit Chakraborty from the University of Texas at El Paso, and Gordon Walker from the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK. All three have affiliations that relate to Geography, and geographic and environmental information play a major part in the analysis and action regarding environmental justice.

The book holds 51 chapters that are covering the theory and practice of environmental justice – from how it is analysed and understood in different academic disciplines, to the methods that are used to demonstrate that environmental justice issues happen in a place,  and an overview of the regional and global aspects of current environmental justice struggles. The range of chapters and the knowledge of the people who write them are making this collection a useful resource for those who are studying and acting in this area (though few top authors in this field are missing, but their work is well referenced)

However, with a price tag of £165 for the Book, the costs put an obstacle for those who need the information but suitable for universities and libraries. The eBook is £35, which makes it much more affordable, though having used the online system, the interface could be better. Luckily the policy of Routledge permits sharing the chapters on personal websites.

My contribution, together with Louise Francis, is in Chapter 24 –Participatory GIS and community-based citizen science for environmental justice action. In this chapter, we provide an overview of the use of participatory GIS in environmental justice action, but in particular, a detailed explanation of the methodology that we have developed a decade ago, with contributions from Colleen Whitaker, Chris Church and other people that worked with us a the time. The methodology is now used in the activities of Mapping for Change.  The methodology supports both participatory mapping and citizen science.

As we note in the chapter “Our methodology emerged in 2007, through the London 21 Sustainability Network project ‘A Fairer, Greener London’, which aimed to give six marginalised communities the opportunity to develop their own understanding of local environmental justice issues and supporting action plans to address them. The project was integrated closely with the project ‘Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities’ which was funded as part of the UrbanBuzz scheme. Both projects were based on accessible GIS technologies and available environmental information sources.

The methodology evolved into a six-stage process that is inherently flexible and iterative – so, while the stages are presented here as a serial process, the application of the methodology for a specific case is carried out through a discussion with the local community.” The chapter provides an example for the implementation of the methodology from the work that we carried out in the Pepys Estate.

If you want to read the whole chapter (and use the methodology) you can find it here. For any other chapter in the handbook, email the authors and they will probably share a copy with you. 

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Algorithmic governance in environmental information (or how technophilia shape environmental democracy)

These are the slides from my talk at the Algorithmic Governance workshop (for which there are lengthy notes in the previous post). The workshop explored the many ethical, legal and conceptual issues with the transition to Big Data and algorithm based decision-making.

My contribution to the discussion is based on previous thoughts on environmental information and public use of it. Inherently, I see the relationships between environmental decision-making, information, and information systems as something that need to be examined through the prism of the long history that linked them. This way we can make sense of the current trends. This three area are deeply linked throughout the history of the modern environmental movement since the 1960s (hence the Apollo 8 earth image at the beginning),  and the Christmas message from the team with the reference to Genesis (see below) helped in making the message stronger .

To demonstrate the way this triplet evolved, I’m using texts from official documents – Stockholm 1972 declaration, Rio 1992 Agenda 21, etc. They are fairly consistent in their belief in the power of information systems in solving environmental challenges. The core aspects of environmental technophilia are summarised in slide 10.

This leads to environmental democracy principles (slide 11) and the assumptions behind them (slide 12). While information is open, it doesn’t mean that it’s useful or accessible to members of the public. This was true when raw air monitoring observations were released as open data in 1997 (before anyone knew the term), and although we have better tools (e.g. Google Earth) there are consistent challenges in making information meaningful – what do you do with Environment Agency DSM if you don’t know what it is or how to use a GIS? How do you interpret Global Forest Watch analysis about change in tree cover in your area if you are not used to interpreting remote sensing data (a big data analysis and algorithmic governance example)? I therefore return to the hierarchy of technical knowledge and ability to use information (in slide 20) that I covered in the ‘Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation‘ and look at how the opportunities and barriers changed over the years in slide 21.

The last slides show that despite of all the technical advancement, we can have situations such as the water contamination in Flint, Michigan which demonstrate that some of the problems from the 1960s that were supposed to be solved, well monitored, with clear regulations and processes came back because of negligence and lack of appropriate governance. This is not going to be solved with information systems, although citizen science have a role to play to deal with the governmental failure. This whole sorry mess and the re-emergence of air quality as a Western world environmental problem is a topic for another discussion…