Frontline communities bear the brunt of harms created by climate change and environmental pollution, but they also increasingly generate their own data, providing critical social and environmental context often not present in research or agency-collected data. However, community data collectors face many obstacles to integrating this data into federal systems: they must navigate complex local and federal policies within dense legal landscapes, and even when there is interest or demonstrated need, agencies and researchers may lack the capacity to find or integrate this data responsibly.
Federal research and regulatory agencies, as well as the White House, are increasingly supporting community-led environmental justice initiatives, presenting an opportunity to better integrate local and contextualized information into more effective and responsive environmental policy.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should better integrate community data into environmental research and governance by building internal capacity for recognizing and applying such data, facilitating connections between data communities, and addressing misalignments with data standards.
Community science and monitoring are often overlooked yet vital facets of open science. Community science collaborations and their resulting data have led to historic environmental justice victories that underscore the importance of contextualized community-generated data in environmental problem-solving and evidence-informed policy-making.
Momentum around integrating community-generated environmental data has been building at the federal level for the past decade. In 2016, the report “A Vision for Citizen Science at EPA,” produced by the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT), thoroughly diagnosed the need for a clear framework for moving community-generated environmental data and information into governance processes. Since then, EPA has developed additional participatory science resources, including a participatory science vision, policy guidelines, and equipment loan programs. More recently, in 2022, the EPA created an Equity Action Plan in alignment with their 2022–2026 Strategic Plan and established an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights (OEJECR). And, in 2023, as a part of the cross-agency Year of Open Science, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Transform to Open Science (TOPS) program lists “broadening participation by historically excluded communities” as a requisite part of its strategic objectives.
It is evident that the EPA and research funding agencies like NASA have a strategic and mission-driven interest in collaborating with communities bearing the brunt of environmental and climate injustice to unlock the potential of their data. It is also clear that current methods aren’t working. Communities that collect and use environmental data still must navigate disjointed reporting policies and data standards and face a dearth of resources on how to share data with relevant stakeholders within the federal government. There is a critical lack of capacity and coordination directed at cross-agency integration of community data and the infrastructure that could enable the use of this data in regulatory and policy-making processes.
To build government capacity to integrate community-generated data into environmental governance, the EPA should:
- Create a memorandum of understanding between the EPA’s OEJECR, National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), United States Digital Service (USDS), and relevant research agencies, including NASA, National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), and National Science Foundation (NSF), to develop a collaborative framework for building internal capacity for generating and applying community-generated data, as well as managing it to enable its broader responsible reuse.
- Develop and distribute guidance on responsible scientific collaboration with communities that prioritizes ethical open science and data-sharing practices that center community and environmental justice priorities.
- Create a capacity-building program, designed by and with environmental justice and data-collecting communities, focused on building translational and intermediary roles within the EPA that can facilitate connections and responsible sharing between data holders and seekers. Incentivize the application of the aforementioned guidance within federally funded research by recruiting and training program staff to act as translational liaisons situated between the OEJECR, regional EPA offices, and relevant research funding agencies, including NASA, NOAA, and NSF.
To facilitate connections between communities generating data, the EPA should:
- Expand the scope of the current Environmental Information Exchange Network (EN) to include facilitation of environmental data sharing by community-based organizations and community science initiatives.
- Initiate a working group including representatives from data-generating community organizations to develop recommendations on how EN might accommodate community data and how its data governance processes can center community and environmental justice priorities.
- Provide grant funding within the EN earmarked for community-based organizations to support data integration with the EN platform. This could include hiring contractors with technical data management expertise to support data uploading within established standards or to build capacity internally within community-based organizations to collect and manage data according to EN standards.
- Expand the resources available for EN partners that support data quality assurance, advocacy, and sharing, for example by providing technical assistance through regional EPA offices trained through the aforementioned capacity-building program.
To address misaligned data standards, the EPA, in partnership with USDS and the OMB, should:
- Update and promote guidance resources for communities and community-based organizations aiming to apply the data standards EPA uses to integrate data in regulatory decisions.
- Initiate a collaborative co-design process for new data standards that can accommodate community-generated data, with representation from communities who collect environmental data. This may require the creation of maps or crosswalks to facilitate translation between standards, including research data standards, as well as internal capacity to maintain these crosswalks.
Community-generated data provides contextualized environmental information essential for evidence-based policy-making and regulation, which in turn reduces wasteful spending by designing effective programs. Moreover, healthcare costs will be reduced for the general public if better evidence is used to address pollution, and climate adaptation costs could be reduced if we can use more localized and granular data to address pressing environmental and climate issues now rather than in the future.
Our recommendations call for the addition of at least 10 full-time employees for each regional EPA office. The additional positions proposed could fill existing vacancies in newly established offices like the OEJECR. Additional budgetary allocations can also be made to the EPA’s EN to support technical infrastructure alterations and grant-making.
While there is substantial momentum and attention on community environmental data, our proposed capacity stimulus can make existing EPA processes more effective at achieving their mission and supports rebuilding trust in agencies that are meant to serve the public.
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