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 £139.5 for the eBook, the costs put an obstacle for those who need the information, and 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. 


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…

Environmental information: between scarcity/abundance and emotions/rationality

The Eye on Earth Summit, which was held in Abu Dhabi last week, allowed me to immerse myself in the topics that I’ve been researching for a long time: geographic information, public access to environmental information, participation, citizen science, and the role of all these in policy making. My notes (day 1 morning, day 1 afternoon, day 2 morning, day 2 afternoon, day 3 morning & day 3 afternoon) provide the background for this post, as well as the blog posts from Elisabeth Tyson (day 1, day 2) and the IISD reports and bulletins from the summit. The first Eye on Earth Summit provided me with plenty to think about, so I thought that it is worth reflecting on my ‘Take home’ messages.

What follows are my personal reflections from the summit and the themes that I feel are emerging in the area of environmental information today. 

wpid-wp-1444166132788.jpgWhen considering the recent ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs by the UN Assembly, it is not surprising that they loomed large over the summit – as drivers for environmental information demand for the next 15 years, as focal points for the effort of coordination of information collection and dissemination, but also as an opportunity to make new links between environment and health, or promoting environmental democracy (access to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice). It seems that the SDGs are very much in the front of the mind of the international organisations who are part of the Eye on Earth alliance, although other organisations, companies and researchers who are coming with more technical focus (e.g. Big Data or Remote Sensing) are less aware of them – at least in terms of referring to them in their presentations during the summit.

Beyond the SDGs, two overarching tensions emerged throughout the presentations and discussions – and both are challenging. They are the tensions between abundance and scarcity, and between emotions and rationality. Let’s look at them in turn.

Abundance and scarcity came up again and agin. On the data side, the themes of ‘data revolution’, more satellite information, crowdsourcing from many thousands of weather observers and the creation of more sources of information (e.g. Environmental Democracy Index) are all examples for abundance in the amount of available data and information. At the same time, this was contrasted with the scarcity in the real world (e.g species extinction, health of mangroves), scarcity of actionable knowledge, and scarcity with ecologists with computing skills. Some speakers oscillated between these two ends within few slides or even in the same one. There wasn’t an easy resolution for this tension, and both ends were presented as challenges.


With emotions and scientific rationality, the story was different. Here the conference was packed with examples that we’re (finally!) moving away from a simplistic ‘information deficit model‘ that emphasise scientific rationality as the main way to lead a change in policy or public understanding of environmental change. Throughout the summit presenters emphasised the role of mass media communication, art (including live painting development through the summit by GRID-Arendal team), music, visualisation, and story telling as vital ingredients that make information and knowledge relevant and actionable. Instead of a ‘Two Cultures’ position, Eye on Earth offered a much more harmonious and collaborative linkage between these two ways of thinking and feeling.

Next, and linked to the issue of abundance and scarcity are costs and funding. Many talks demonstrated the value of open data and the need to provide open, free and accessible information if we want to see environmental information used effectively. Moreover, providing the information with the ability of analyse or visualise it over the web was offered as a way to make it more powerful. However, the systems are costly, and although the assessment of the IUCN demonstrated that the investment in environmental datasets is modest compared to other sources (and the same is true for citizen science), there are no sustainable, consistent and appropriate funding mechanisms, yet. Funding infrastructure or networking activities is also challenging, as funders accept the value, but are not willing to fund them in a sustainable way. More generally, there is an issue about the need to fund ecological and environmental studies – it seem that while ‘established science’ is busy with ‘Big Science’ – satellites, Big Data, complex computer modelling – the work of studying ecosystems in an holistic way is left to small group of dedicated researchers and to volunteers. The urgency ad speed of environmental change demand better funding for these areas and activities.

This lead us to the issue of Citizen Science, for which the good news are that it was mentioned throughout the summit, gaining more prominence than 4 years ago in the first summit (were it also received attention). In all plenary sessions, citizen science or corwdsourced geographic information were mentioned at least once, and frequently by several speakers. Example include Hermes project for recording ocean temperatures, Airscapes Singapore for urban air quality monitoring, the Weather Underground of sharing weather information, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team work in Malawi, Kathmandu Living Lab response to the earthquake in Nepal, Arab Youth Climate Movement in Bahrain use of iNaturalist to record ecological observations, Jacky Judas work with volunteers to monitor dragonflies in Wadi Wurayah National Park  – and many more. Also the summit outcomes document is clear:  “The Summit highlighted the role of citizen science groups in supporting governments to fill data gaps, particularly across the environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. Citizen Science was a major focus area within the Summit agenda and there was general consensus that reporting against SDGs must include citizen science data. To this end, a global coalition of citizen science groups will be established by the relevant actors and the Eye on Earth Alliance will continue to engage citizen science groups so that new data can be generated in areas where gaps are evident. The importance of citizen engagement in decision-making processes was also highlighted. ”

However, there was ambivalence about it – should it be seen as an instrument, a tool to produce environmental information or as a mean to get wider awareness and engagement by informed citizens? How best to achieve the multiple goals of citizen science: raising awareness, educating, providing skills well beyond the specific topic of the project, and democratising decision making and participation? It seem to still be the case that the integration of citizen science into day to day operations is challenging for many of the international organisations that are involved in the Eye on Earth alliance.

Another area of challenging interactions emerged from the need for wide partnerships between governments, international organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), companies, start-ups, and even ad-hoc crowds that respond to a specific event or an issue which are afforded by digital and social network. There are very different speeds in implementation and delivery between these bodies, and in some cases there are chasms that need to be explored – for example, an undercurrent from some technology startups is that governments are irrelevant and in some forms of thinking that ‘to move fast and break things’ – including existing social contracts and practices – is OK. It was somewhat surprising to hear speakers praising Uber or AirBnB, especially when they came from people who familiar with the need for careful negotiations that take into account wider goals and objectives. I can see the wish to move things faster – but to what risks to we bring by breaking things?

With the discussions about Rio Principle 10 and the new developments in Latin America, the Environmental Democracy Index, and the rest, I became more convinced, as I’ve noted in 2011, that we need to start thinking about adding another right to the three that are included in it (access to environmental information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice), and develop a right to produce environmental information that will be taken seriously by the authorities – in other words, a right for citizen science. I was somewhat surprised by the responses when I raised this point during the discussion on Principle 10.

Final panel (source: IISD)

Finally, Eye on Earth was inclusive and collaborative, and it was a pleasure to see how open people were to discuss issues and explore new connections, points of view or new ways of thinking about issues. A special point that raised several positive responses was the gender representation in such high level international conference with a fairly technical focus (see the image of the closing panel). The composition of the speakers in the summit, and the fact that it was possible to have such level of women representation was fantastic to experience (making one of the male-only panels on the last day odd!). It is also an important lesson for many academic conferences – if Eye on Earth can, I cannot see a reason why it is not possible elsewhere.

Citizen or Civic Science, activism and NIMBY

Recently, I attended a meeting with people from a community that is concerned with vibration and noise caused by a railway near their homes. We have discussed the potential of using citizen science to measure the vibrations that pass the sensory threshold and that people classify as unpleasant, together with other perceptions and feeling about these incidents. This can form the evidence to a discussion with the responsible authorities to see what can be done.

As a citizen science activity, this is not dissimilar from the work carried out around Heathrow to measure the level of noise nuisance or air pollution monitoring that ExCiteS and Mapping for Change carried out in other communities.

In the meetings, the participants felt that they need to emphasise that they are not against the use of the railway or the development of new railway links. Like other groups that I have net in the past, they felt that it is important to emphasise that their concern is not only about their locality – in other words, this is not a case of ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) which is the most common dismissal of local concerns. The concern over NIMBY and citizen science is obvious one, and frequently come up in questions about the value and validity of data collected through this type of citizen science.

During my masters studies, I was introduced to Maarten Wolsink (1994) analysis of NIMBY as a compulsory reading in one of the courses. It is one of the papers that I keep referring to from time to time, especially when complaints about participatory work and NIMBY come up.
Inherently, what Wolsink is demonstrating is that the conceptualisation of the people who are involved in the process as selfish and focusing on only their own area is wrong. Through the engagement with environmental and community concerns, people will explore issues at wider scales and many time will argue for ‘Not in Anyone’s Back Yard’ or for a balance between the needs of infrastructure development and their own quality of life. Studies on environmental justice also demonstrated that what the people who are involved in such activities ask for are not narrow, but many times mix aspects of need for recognition, expectations of respect, arguments of justice, and participation in decision-making (Schlosberg 2007).

In other words, the citizen science and systematic data collection are a way for the community to bring to the table evidence that can enhance arguments beyond NIMBY, and while it might be part of the story it is not the whole story.

For me, these interpretations are part of the reason that such ‘activism’-based citizen science should receive the same attention and respect as any other data collection, most notably by the authorities.

Wolsink, M. (1994) Entanglement of Interests and Motives: Assumptions Behind the NIMBY-Theory on Facility Siting, Urban Studies, 31(6), pp. 851-866.
Scholsberg, D. (2007) Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford University Press, 2007

The Experienced Noise

While the new Defra noise maps provide the results of a computerised model, the experience of noisy places can be mapped through community mapping, as was demonstrated recently in the Royal Docks area and the Pepys Estate.

Within the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project, and through the collaboration with London Sustainability Exchange and London 21 projects on Environmental Justice and with the help of Christian Nold, we have recently carried out studies of noise in two areas in east London. While the method is based on a systematic data collection framework, it does not intend to replace detailed acoustics studies that the authorities should carry out regarding sources of noise which influence residential areas. What it does is enable communities to get evidence about their experience, the maximum levels of noise that they are exposed to and to identify the sources of noise that influence the specific place.

The following text is taken from the press release that we have just issued:

People living in the Pepys Estate in Lewisham and in the Royal Docks area in Newham have led the way with a new way to tackle noise. The Pepys Estate currently suffers noise pollution from a scrapyard near the centre of the estate and very close to both a primary and nursery school, while Royal Docks suffers noise problems resulting from flights in and out of London City Airport (LCA), where a major expansion is threatened.

The project supplied local residents with noise meters and trained them in how to use these devices. They went on to make over 1500 measurements at all times of day and night and developed their own ‘noise maps’.

The results of this ‘citizen science’ have been remarkable. On the Pepys Estate members of the Community Forum found disturbingly high levels of noise, often continuing outside normal working hours. This noise affected quality of life up to 350 metres from the scrapyard. They have been trying to deal with this problem for over six years, initially raising concerns with the Mayor of Lewisham and others in September 2002. Since this time the disturbance has actually escalated. Now armed with this information they called a public meeting to present their findings to the council and the Environment Agency.

Lewisham Council and the Environment Agency accept that there is a problem. After seeing the results of the survey the Agency has appointed an acoustic consultant to carry out a detailed analysis of noise in and from the scrapyard. The residents who carried out the survey will meet with the consultant to share their information, and will work with the council to agree an action plan for moving forward.

The communities surrounding London City Airport (LCA), including Virginia Quays and Thamesmead, also found troubling results. Many readings exceed levels deemed to cause serious annoyance under the World Health Organisation community noise guidelines. The measurements gathered by the community revealed a clear correlation between unacceptable levels of noise and the LCA operational hours. More interestingly, the results obtained by both communities indicate that people are quite accurate in their perceptions of noise levels and the survey enabled them to express how these affected them. One of the residents said ‘the noise is irritable, I can’t relax or have the window open – but I can’t shut out the noise so have to turn the TV up – but everything is then so loud.’

The full press release is available here.