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Environmental Assessment 2.0

March 6, 2011

This blog post, by Douglas Schoch, is the second in a series of guest blog posts from UBC students to be published over the coming month. West Coast Environmental Law is currently hosting UBC students in a clinical Environmental Law Workshop.  Writing a blog post is a required assignment for the students.


Web 2.0 technologies have the potential to improve the Environmental Assessment process in BC and Canada.  So far these technologies have been underutilized, but innovative uses in other areas provide some insight into how they may lead to better EA.  

First of all, what is Web 2.0?  For one, this blog is Web 2.0, as are the estimated 100+ million other blogs on the Internet.  Web 2.0 is also websites like Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  More than any specific technology or website, though, Web 2.0 is an idea.  As the Internet has evolved, it has gone from being a publishing medium (“Web 1.0”) to a forum for social networking, collaboration, and information sharing (“Web 2.0”).  These trends are changing the way individuals interact with each other, with their governments, and with societal institutions.

Bellona.jpgApplied to Environmental Assessment, Web 2.0 could create an assessment process that is more participatory, based on better data, and ultimately leads to higher quality decisions.  Following are some important Web 2.0 trends and their potential impacts on EA:

Mass Collaboration

Perhaps the most impressive example of mass collaboration on the Internet so far is Wikipedia.  When it first began, few would have believed that a free encyclopedia relying on volunteers to generate its content would even get off the ground.  Today there are over 90,000 active contributors, making tens of thousands of edits each day.  The English version alone currently has over 3.5 million articles, and there are Wikipedias in 270 languages.   Not only is Wikipedia a massive collaboration, but it is also reliable.  Wikipedia demonstrates that the public can be trusted to govern itself.  Although anybody could add false information or deface an entry, the community collectively polices the site.  Despite relying on volunteer editors, the accuracy of Wikipedia rivals that of Encyclopedia Britannica, according to a study by the journal Nature.

Some common complaints about Environmental Assessment are that the public does not have enough input in the process and that the information being relied on may come from biased sources and therefore be inaccurate. What if the Wikipedia model were applied to assessment?  Starting with the proponent’s submission, the public would then be able to edit the document to create a version as free from bias or factual error as possible.  Controversial sections could be flagged for discussion, glaring errors fixed, and omissions filled in.  Certain points of contention might require further study, scientific peer review, or just be acknowledged as unsettled.  The end result would be a collaborative environmental assessment more accurate and inclusive than any one party alone could create.

Changing Minds with Mashups

Web 2.0 is opening up governments and their data.  Some of this data can be useful for environmental decision-making, such as the wide range of publicly available geographic data now free to download from GeoBC, a spatial data clearinghouse for various provincial ministries and agencies.  Through the online iMap application, users can explore a variety of data sources including data from the Ministry of Environment such as the locations and details of projects subject to environmental assessment.

By making data publicly available, this allows users to “mash up” the data (i.e. recombine it in new ways).  The Ministry of Environment recently hosted a competition for users to create “Climate Action Apps” by mashing up public data (available here).  A list of the winners can be found here.  Some highlights include:

Open data policies should lead to higher quality environmental assessments for a variety of reasons.  Open data encourages the public to create mashups, leading to a better understanding of the data through innovative visualizations.  With better understanding come better decisions.  Those decisions also acquire greater legitimacy by allowing the public to explore and scrutinize the data on which the assessment is being based.  Additionally, awareness of environmental issues through open data should enhance public participation (for a current example see Watershed Sentinel’s environmental Hotspots of Western Canada).  

Better Data through Crowdsourcing

Sometimes existing data is insufficient or nonexistent.  This is where mass collaboration and open data converge in the form of “crowdsourcing.”  Crowdsourcing allows ordinary people to collaboratively create data sets using a variety of interfaces including smart phones, web forms, or special software.  Crowdsourced data has shown itself to be reliable to the point where it is even being used in science (for example GalaxyZoo and FoldIt). 

Some current environmental applications for crowdsourced data can be seen in the responses to several recent natural disasters.  After the Haiti earthquake, rescuers were initially hindered by a lack of good data.  Using OpenStreetMap, in a matter of days volunteer cartographers from around the world created an accurate, up-to-date basemap of Haiti using satellite images and other sources.  This became the go-to reference map for rescuers.  Then, with data crowdsourced on the open source Ushahidi platform, rescuers were better able to coordinate their responses. Ushahidi has also been used to respond to a variety of other disasters including the Russian fires, Queenland floods, Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and Christchurch earthquake.  For a more detailed look at the Haiti response, including some dramatic visualizations of mass collaboration in action, see here.

There is an enormous potential for crowdsourcing to improve data used in environmental assessments.  Smart phone apps could be used in the field to identify and record wildlife sightings, leading to better estimates of species population and a better understanding of migration patterns.  Personal weather monitoring using data from home weather stations could more finely track microclimatic changes.  Citizen regulators could monitor industrial compliance with environmental regulations, with violations being reported through an interface like SeeClickFix.  The potential applications are endless.

Crowdsourced data, perhaps in combination with open data provided by government, could be used to verify or challenge the conclusions reached by the environmental assessment.  If the data did support the assessment’s conclusions, that would increase the assessment’s validity in the eyes of the public.  If the crowdsourced data led to a different conclusion, that would give the public leverage to challenge the assessment.  Either way, crowdsourcing would enhance public participation in environmental assessment and improve the quality of decisions through better data.

Social Media

Social media makes it much easier for the public to stay informed of updates on projects, send feedback, start discussions, or organize responses.  In BC, the government uses social media extensively.  An official list with links to BC government sites such as blogs, Facebook pages, and Flickr galleries can be found here. Some of these are already relevant to environmental assessment such as the environmental assessment certification updates available via the Ministry of Environment’s Twitter updates, RSS feeds, and Facebook site.

Social media could enable greater public participation in the environmental assessment process, and it is already being used for this purpose in other areas.  For example, in a report on Government 2.0, the BC Ministry of Environment touts its use of online tools such as its blog for enhancing public participation in the ongoing modernization of the Water Act.  Recently the BC Deputy Minister of the Environment announced a restructuring of ministry operations, which would include more reliance on social media. Social media is no substitute for adequate consultation and public participation, however, so its use raises some cause for concern (see Andrew’s post here). 

Feedback

When I first began working on this post, I had hoped to find more examples of Web 2.0 being used in environmental assessment.  Other than the Ministry of Environment tweeting about EA updates or using GeoBC’s iMap to find the locations of sites under EA, there are not many examples of Environmental Assessment 2.0 out there yet. Nevertheless, EA is an area ripe for more mass collaboration, crowdsourcing, mashups, and social media.

Please feel free to send any comments about this post or ideas about how Web 2.0 technologies could be incorporated into Environmental Assessment.   I look forward to hearing your feedback.

ds.jpgBy Douglas Schoch

Douglas Schoch is a second year law student at the University of British Columbia.  He is interested in environmental and cultural heritage law.  In his free time he enjoys skiing, mountain biking, and hiking in the local mountains.

The graphic used above is a screenshot of Bellona CO2 mashup using Google maps API. The topic for this blog post was suggested by Andrew Gage, staff lawyer at West Coast.

Additional Links:

Crowdsourcing

 
Mashups