Building Power Tools: Data-Sharing for Environmental Health and Justice

August 1, 2014

This blog post was authored by HEFN Director Kathy Sessions.

What do people organizing for environmental justice, advocating for healthier housing and building materials, mapping hotspots of pollution and poverty, or monitoring impacts of oil and gas production have in common?  They’re all creatively using data-sharing to engage lots of people in identifying, understanding and solving problems.

“Data-sharing” generally means freely releasing or exchanging measurable pieces of information, such as a measurement or a location.  Data-sharing is very common in science, as researchers review, test, replicate, and build on others’ work.   Governmental data, often regarded as a public asset, may be shared as in the Obama Administration’s Open Data Initiative for greater accountability, transparency, or collaboration.

Many kinds of data relevant to the environmental health arena are collected and, increasingly, being shared.  People are measuring hazards, like toxics in air, water, or everyday products.  They’re mapping pollution sources and their proximity to homes, hospitals, schools, and day care facilities.  They’re monitoring health indicators and disease rates in specific communities or populations. People may combine data from different sources to get a fuller picture of environmental conditions and their health impacts.

At HEFN we’ve been intrigued by an apparent trend among our members’ grantees towards using data-sharing as a tool in their work.  And by the potential to expand and connect such data-sharing efforts, as a way of scaling up the environmental health and justice movement.   To explore these issues – and help our funder community explore them – we recently commissioned a paper and held a meeting.

We’re delighted to share a new HEFN paper by open data expert David Eaves on “Building Power through Data-Sharing:  Issues and Opportunities for Environmental Health and Justice Funders.”  This paper is a great read about using today’s technologies to make social change.   It introduces terms and trends in open data, highlights examples from environmental health and justice data-sharing, and offers useful lessons for funders considering proposals or future strategic investments.

In June HEFN hosted a meeting on “Advancing the Health and Environment Data Commons.”   We brought funder members, NGOs, researchers and open data experts together for a day in Washington, DC to swap experiences and ideas about data-sharing for environmental health work.      

Some takeaways from the new HEFN paper and meeting discussions:

  • There’s a lot to learn from and build on:   Effective data-sharing projects already exist in the environmental health and justice movement, as do tools and allies in the open data movement.  (The paper and its appendix offer examples of each.)
  • Possibilities are big:  Data-sharing could be an even more powerful tool for organizing, advocacy and research, if capacity was built within organizations and the field.  One small southern California project enabling residents to report local environmental hazards so effectively catalyzed official responses that similar projects are underway in other California communities.  The state of California now uses a “CalEnviroScreen” tool to target resources to neighborhoods overburdened by multiple pollution sources. Imagine if these were replicated across the country?   
  • Tools are great but costs are real:  Technologies for information-sharing are getting more powerful and cheaper.  But getting major impacts even from “free” tools requires investments to build and sustain datasets and communities engaging with them.  Beyond specific projects, philanthropic support could help with business planning, technical assistance, or shared infrastructure for multiple efforts.
  • Power is the prize.  Data is a tool, not an end in itself.  It’s worth considering whether and where more data-sharing could improve knowledge, strategies, and ultimately outcomes in work to make environments healthier for all.

HEFN sends a big thank-you to the Heinz Endowments, Kresge Foundation, and Marisla Foundation for their support of Eaves’ paper and the June data commons meeting.  We hope this kicks off more attention to data-sharing as a new power tool for the environmental health and justice movement.  

From our Blog

Blog posted on January 13, 2014
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