Environmental data has become central to both top-down and bottom-up environmental movements, and in the face of a global climate crisis, these movements have never been as urgent as they are now. Through countless use-cases, it is evident that data can be leveraged as an important tool in combating climate change.
Satellite imagery and artificial intelligence help officials across the world survey forest cover to tackle deforestation, predict the risk of heatwaves, and explore how communities can efficiently use solar power. Low-cost sensors can collect hyper-local data to monitor air pollution levels, providing public agencies with the evidence to back responsive policies. In partnership with research institutes, Odisha is also set to carry out a comprehensive vulnerability and risk assessment analysis to create a data-driven action plan for proactive disaster management.
Advancements in technologies, computing power, and data analysis have also expanded the potential of collecting and sharing environmental data.
However, as we realise the value of data-driven solutions for sustainable development and conservation, it is important to build guardrails against data interventions that could contribute further to unjust outcomes. Within the current status quo, there are multiple avenues of such injustice.
To start with, most climate data is generated and monopolised by governments or private actors. For example, oil and gas companies possess over fifty years of data on the environment which—albeit invaluable to on-ground communities, researchers, and policymakers—still remains largely inaccessible to these stakeholders. Datasets generated, mediated, and withheld by large corporations are driven by market interests, serving profit incentives that benefit a narrowly defined set of people.
This amplifies the risk of environmental exploitation, and the lack of transparency, control and agency that individuals, indigenous peoples and environmental leaders possess over data collection, use and sharing. Here lies an equally consequential challenge—redistributing power through environmental data, and mitigating the ongoing weaponisation of such data, whether by the State or by private actors.
Western knowledge and scientific practices that inform climate science and academic research also replicate a similar epistemic injustice. Indigenous ecological knowledge and modes of classification become obfuscated and left out in data that is recorded on resources, biodiversity or other key indicators by governments and large corporations. As a result, ecological datasets do not reflect the lived realities of people or involve them in any meaningful process of data collection or knowledge building. Not only is this antithetical to ideals of social justice, but it neglects vital knowledge that can lead the fight against climate change.
Climate interventions will likely be hinged on the increased availability of reliable, verifiable data. However, the approach to collecting and sharing this data must not create further opportunities for extractivism. Instead, they must be predicated on rights-preserving systems of governance that recognise data as an extension of the human person and consequently, a reflection of one’s environment. Data stewardship presents possible pathways to unlock the value of this data while also safeguarding against misuse.
What Does Data Stewardship for the Environment Look Like?
Better environmental data, when available and under the control or governance of communities can be crucial for bottom-up, conservation efforts. Environmental justice leaders have long relied on forms of data to serve as evidence for the often disproportionate impact that climate change has on marginalised groups.
For community-led movements to meaningfully make use of environmental data though, we must take on their challenges in autonomously collecting it, and accessing existing datasets. This calls into question not just the immediate availability of environmental data, but also who currently controls and wields said data, and to what extent. How can environmental data be collected and used to empower those most impacted by climate change, and those with the greatest commitment to generate meaningful solutions for it? What can be done to safeguard data and limit its access in order that it cannot be used to further degrade our ecosystems? It is important to critically engage with these questions to further the aims of environmental justice—data stewardship can help serve a few of these goals, particularly in this digital age.
Aapti Institute defines data stewards as trusted intermediaries that lie between data users, fiduciaries, and requestors. These entities can range from civil society organisations to public or private companies. Stewards can play multiple roles, including facilitating the exchange of data, supporting users in pooling their rights over data, and upholding the interests of the data generators. This paradigm expands the scope of data governance to explore how data can be unlocked for societal benefit, while enabling those who generate data (or those for whom the data may reflect important realities) with greater agency, control, and representation over their data decisions.
In the face of limited data literacy in India, it may be useful to implement intermediaries that can act in the interest of data subjects such as indigenous communities, and negotiate greater agency and transparency for their digital lives.
Through stewardship, there is a potential to shift to collective, commons-oriented data approaches—all the more relevant for mass environmental movements powered by the ecological knowledge of communities. Communities, offline or otherwise, have always stewarded their natural resources, staked their claim over them, and are increasingly fighting against powerful and digitally emboldened stakeholders that may impede their own access to their resources or habitats. So, offline traditions of local stewardship over environmental data and information can be translated to suit an increasingly data-driven world, through stewardship.
What We Can Learn from the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Movement
To deepen our understanding on how data stewardship may be put into practice, the Indigenous Data Sovereignty movement is a good place to start. Indigenous peoples have been the guardians or stewards of over 80% of the earth’s biodiversity, and through a variety of land management practices and collaborative approaches, have been successful in preventing deforestation and preserving high species richness over the millennia.
Indigenous peoples and their ancestral practices of utilising resources are clearly critical to ensuring ecological sustainability. Yet, in reality, many of these communities are now threatened by displacement due to State-led ‘development’ initiatives, which are not only often environmentally destructive, but often turn them into refugees in their own lands.
Not only is the agency of indigenous people bypassed during this form of offline “development” oriented governance, but colonial legacies of extractive data collection, mislabelling of data, and misusing of it continue to be reified online as well.
The movement of indigenous data sovereignty aims to break this pattern. It draws from rights enshrined under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitle indigenous people to control data that pertains to their lands, peoples and resources. In this light, broader environmental data stewardship efforts in India must necessarily centre indigenous data sovereignty through representative and participative decision-making structures and processes.
Internationally, indigenous and civil society organisations have made progress on this front. The CARE and OCAP principles were developed by the Global Indigenous Data Alliance and Canada’s First Nations Information Governance Centre respectively. These have been imagined as pathways to establishing governance strategies such that indigenous peoples have rights over the data that pertains to them and their lands.
For example, ICES, a Canadian not-for-profit research institute, runs an Indigenous Portfolio dedicated to indigenous driven data use, sharing and governance. As part of its work under this initiative, it is committed to translating the OCAP principles for data relating to its Inuit, Metis, and First Nations partners.
In this context, ICES acts as a data steward and carries out several important functions. Through data-sharing agreements, it unlocks existing health and sociocultural data—primarily held by Canada’s Ministry of Health—and makes it accessible to communities from the Indigenous Nations. Communities can come to ICES scientists with requests or questions on their health data and how it relates to the functioning of health systems in their areas. In this case, such access to localised data allows for communities to place evidence-based demands before the institutions that surround them.
Through collaboration with researchers and scientists, indigenous communities are also provided with the tools to enrich and add to datasets such that they reflect their lived realities (which are often not captured in government-led, colonial registers). ICES then securely holds this data in a repository and issues permits for any researchers looking to access the data to carry out further research. Decision-making around data access, use, and the nature of the study take place in conjunction with a committee composed of members of the Indigenous Portfolio.
Through ICES’ stewardship of data, indigenous communities are better equipped to access their own data, and exercise control over its further usage, as well as potentially be an active part of ongoing research that pertains to their wellbeing and healing. Such outcomes bear clear benefits when it comes to the case of community-driven environmental justice movements.
Yet, while many countries entitle indigenous and tribal peoples to rights over land and resources, many of these approaches prove insufficient in the face of increasing privatisation, digitisation, and the consequent weaponisation of data that has been collected with minimal or no involvement from communities.
Translating Environmental Data Stewardship into Practice
Stewardship can help address some of these inequities and reflect principles laid out in frameworks like OCAP or CARE, but in some regions, meaningfully enacting it may require additional top-down interventions.
For instance, India’s 2002 Biological Diversity Act envisions People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) to record and coalesce local, traditional knowledge on biological ecosystems, heritage, and resources. It has set out that PBRs must be created and validated by Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs), composed of local community members. Through this Act, BMCs are entitled to collect and govern data as well as manage benefit-sharing that may arise from bio-resources. This structure provides the opportunity to centre communities in conservation efforts and preserves indigenous biodiversity knowledge. “In the case of Tamil Nadu, the State Biodiversity Board collates secondary data on all the species in a particular area,” explains Dr. D. Narasimhan, a biodiversity expert on a special committee of the National Biodiversity Authority. “These reports are sent to each BMC, and they are asked to eliminate the species that do not exist around them or to verify the existence of species they do not know about. This is the difference between a traditional biodiversity register and a People’s Biodiversity Register: local people build it based on their own knowledge.”
However, in practice, BMCs face a number of challenges related to community participation, capacity and governance. Dr. Narasimhan shares that many members of BMCs—specifically those located in Tamil Nadu—are unaware of the power and potential of their data, and more critically their statutory rights to proactively govern this data.
“The BMC is not just a government body, it is a statutory body—based on a parliamentary act. That gives it much more power compared to a government body,” Dr. Narasimhan explains. “Unfortunately, there is a lacuna in realising this, be it on the government’s side, or the BMC’s side. So wherever we went, we tried to emphasise this to BMC members: ‘that you are much more powerful [than you realise], you can govern the data and resources, and decide whom to share or not share it with.’ But, the ground reality is that this [shift in thought] is yet to take shape.”
In contrast to its intended mandate, many BMCs do not typically collect their own data and instead rely on existing, largely qualitative secondary sources from government agencies. Members of BMCs are also constrained by the lack of technical resources and personnel who can help analyse, validate, and derive value out of this data. “Technical Support Groups (TSG) do exist in Tamil Nadu to address the knowledge gaps BMCs may have, but only one such group is available for each district,” says Dr. Narasimhan. “Given that districts contain thousands of Panchayats, this makes it difficult for TSGs to adequately support all BMCs as they compile PBRs.” Without primary data and this technical know-how, BMC members are also limited in their ability to stake administrative claims or ownership over bio-cultural data. Lastly, BMCs seem to have limited protocols in place to manage benefit-sharing processes, data management, and security. “In this case, local stewardship over environmental data can only happen when BMC members become aware of their powers and responsibilities,” Dr. Narasimhan concludes. “This is happening already, but it is a long process.
This case demonstrates that while policy-first measures may instil structural means of community-oriented data governance, stewards like BMCs require foundational support for top-down systems to succeed. To that end, skill-building, data literacy, technical guidance, and meaningful communication of the power and scope that environmental data stewardship can lend to these communities are all necessary interventions.
How Ecosystem Support Can Empower Community-led Stewards
Realising the importance of skill building to enable bottom-up data governance, the Open Development Initiative (ODI) acts as an ecosystem enabler to support indigenous communities in stewarding their own data. Operating across five countries in Southeast Asia’s Lower Mekong Basin, ODI builds the capacity of communities to understand what environmental data means to them and how they can record it.
“We’re building the skills and capacities of communities to understand why it’s important to have solid data, specifically around indigenous practices and culture,” says Pyrou Chung, Director, Open Development Initiative. “We show how this intertwines with environmental data on land and natural resources—because communities [here] are being divested of these resources at such a large and extensive pace.”
In partnership with Digital Democracy—a civil society organisation that has built ‘Mapeo’, an open-source tool designed to capture environmental data and indigenous knowledge—ODI offers communities technical support, including access to the platform, and also guides them in establishing a protocol for collection, governance, and sharing of environmental data. Many communities have limited digital, data, and overall literacy or face the evisceration of their local languages—to address this, ODI worked closely with Digital Democracy to ensure that the tool supported multilingual functionality across the platform.
In addition to capacity-building work, ODI advocates for opening up research and knowledge often held in proprietary siloes by academics and mainstream conservation groups. The organisations and its partners release all research in an open-source format, and help make it accessible to their indigenous partners on the ground. At a policy level, ODI works with bilateral institutions like the Asian Indigenous People’s Pact to push for the creation of more inclusive technologies and to form principles and frameworks for indigenous data sovereignty. “By inspiring a larger group of indigenous peoples to say ‘Our data and our knowledge is legitimate’, they can start to utilise this for greater land rights toward self-determination—to claim greater usage rights or title over their lands,” adds Chung.
A key aspect of ODIs work is prioritising the security and safekeeping of data—allowing indigenous peoples to decide when and if they choose to share this with third parties. This also serves to safeguard groups that are often the target of physical or digital targets of malicious political activity—which is all the more important in an often politically volatile region. These efforts can prove life-changing to peoples’ security, leverage and negotiating power, particularly against the political weaponisation of their data and identity. In these ways, ODIs work is fundamental to the creation, sustainability, and autonomy of community-led stewards.
Data Collaboratives and Cooperatives for Climate Action
Whether required to power top-down or bottom-up efforts, meaningful climate interventions will require that we build a robust, transparent, and equitable ecosystem of data exchange. Data stewardship can embody various forms—bringing together and incentivising multiple stakeholder groups to unlock and generate value from data—through structures like data collaboratives and data cooperatives.
While these may be distinct from the politics of indigenous data sovereignty, they offer useful ways to imagine community participation and stewardship over environmental data.
Data collaboratives, a model of stewardship that brings together various stakeholders with the purpose of accessing and pooling data, will be increasingly important in unlocking environmental data held by multiple players. In the U.S., the Southeast Environmental Taskforce (SET) in partnership with Public Lab mobilised residents in Chicago to collect the necessary evidence to ban petcoke, a toxic by-product of the oil refining process that once polluted Chicago’s air and water bodies. Through workshops, the organisations engaged community members in creating aerial maps of the hazardous petcoke waste through balloon mapping. Citizens were also equipped with the tools and knowledge to install low-cost air quality monitors. Three years down the line, this mobilisation resulted in new city regulations being adopted and the storage company was forced to enclose or eliminate the piles of petcoke. In this case, SET played an important role as a steward by helping advance the community’s data literacy, and supporting them to develop the capability and means to leverage this data for immediate action with the city government.
Another method of governing environmental resources and data in a community-centric way is through data cooperatives, which are now considered to be an increasingly representative model of stewardship. Abalobi, a social enterprise based in South Africa, functions much like a data cooperative. The organisation facilitates sustainable marine and coastal resource management with the intent to transition the fisheries industry into a more ecologically fair and transparent system. Part of this vision includes enabling fishermen and women to be co-producers of knowledge and owners of their data. Through a mobile-based app and a platform that Abalobi designed in collaboration with fishers, fisherfolk collect a range of data that includes various oceanic and atmospheric parameters, catch history, as well as their income and expenses. Fishers are provided with control over sharing this new information as well as their traditional knowledge with other fishers, to connect to a marketplace or with public agencies to secure permits for fishing rights.
With partners @BlueVentures & @DahariComores we’re testing a customised version of our ABALOBI MONITOR app for community data technicians in the #Comoros: https://t.co/9wOpOgxBBz pic.twitter.com/pYlw0mmNkU
— ABALOBI (@abalobi_app) June 3, 2021
In addition to assuming a duty of care and responsibility to operate in the best interests of fishers, Abalobi’s role as a steward is also reflected in their commitment to furthering data literacy and creating participatory governance structures. The organisation’s board and advisory groups have been set up to include representatives from fishing communities who play an active role in building out programs and making key decisions around data sharing. This is operationalised through monthly “data meetings”, which are attended by representatives of the fisher communities. As custodians of their data, Abalobi also provides data services to their beneficiaries, by helping them visualise important details and patterns that may not be visible through their individual level app dashboards. Most critically, Abalobi acts as an intermediary to build the bargaining power necessary for fishers to renegotiate their position with the fisheries authorities.
The Need to Amplify and Enable Environmental Data Stewardship
While an increasing number of stewards exists, they need to be further enabled in order for them to exercise collective responsibility and ownership over both the commons resources and the data that flows from it. ‘Save Mollem’, the protest against the draft Environment Impact Assessment (2020), and the campaign to save Aarey forest represent just a few ongoing efforts in India where communities have put forward demands for greater transparency, accountability, and action over their surrounding ecosystems. They are accompanied by a growing movement that prioritizes community-based governance over natural resources.
This leaves us with important areas to solve for, especially in the Indian context, where environmental law and justice are increasingly shaped by a top-down approach. In a country of thousands of social organisations, how can we collectively enhance the capacity of existing non-profits or civil society organisations to act as stewards of environmental resources and data? Beyond capacity, this will requires organizations to learn what ethical responsibilities they hold as data guardians and how to apply these in practice. Further, how can community-oriented stakeholders come together to not only build awareness and capacity, but also implement structures that are both rights preserving and value-oriented?
In the inevitable move toward increasing datafication, how can we build information systems and governance that bring everyone on the journey towards social justice, rather than further magnifying existing vulnerabilities?
Not only for our people, but for our habitats, an equitable and sustainable future necessitates community governance. Data as a paradigm presents an avenue to achieve novel structures of equity, but equally bears the risk of being weaponised by powerful actors. At its core, this presents a double-edged sword—one that we must contend with and, as a society, determine its reign.
Featured image: the world’s first marine cemetery, an art installation opened in 2019 in Kerala’s Kozhikode by climate change activist Aakash Ranison. The installation commemorates “marine species which are slowly going extinct, owing to plastic pollution.” | Courtesy of Aakash Ranison (CC BY-SA 4.0).