Open Data: Now More Than Ever

For those interested in knowing what is in the world around them, the current news is disgusting. All US Environmental Protection Agency grants have been frozen, and employees are being prohibited from discussing the changes or talking to the public. The ban also halts all new contracts and the agency is being told to remove information from it’s website. It’s not just the EPA either, other govt agencies including the Department of Health and Human services have been ordered to cease all public contact and the Center for Disease Control just cancelled a major event it has been planning regarding climate change and health with no explanation. Starting immediately the US Department of Agriculture will stop providing any public facing documents. An EPA internal memo shows just how far reaching these new silencing policies are.

At Safecast, while we’ve certainly been critical of the EPA in the past, we’ve always applauded their motivations and efforts to get more data out there and get more people interested in it. Today’s news effectively puts an end to that. This isn’t completely out of the blue, for months scientists have been urging each other to copy as much of their data as they can in anticipation of the new US administration destroying their work. Even requesting information which hasn’t been made public though FOIA is now getting harder. And while these are largely US based issue, the data and information provided by these agencies is used by scientists the world over — and the US is just the latest to start blocking. Earlier this month Air Matters, which bills itself as “A Leading Global Air Quality Provider” was ordered by the Chinese govt to limit the readings it published, an order which they complied with immediately.

These actions go against everything for which Safecast stands.

We believe all people should have access to freely available, trustworthy and accurate data about their environments — especially as environments and health go hand in hand. The problem today–as it’s been since before we founded Safecast–is that governments are expected to be the gate keepers of this data, with the assumption that it’ll be there when it’s needed. We saw this first hand with Fukushima when people were shocked to learn there wasn’t an existing radiation monitoring network in place, and that the little bit of data that was available was restricted. We built Safecast as a reaction to the realization that the world had no idea what radiation levels were on a global scale, and there was very little data available to find out. Six years later, we now publish the largest background radiation dataset that has ever been available, and we put it completely into the public domain (via a CC0 designation) enabling awareness and research that has never been possible before. Our air quality beta test is in full swing and we hope to provide similarly useful data there in the near future. This data belongs to everyone, has no gate keeper, and can’t be shut down by any government. This is the power of open data.

We have frequently been approached by governments, companies and organizations who are interested in environmental monitoring. The vast majority of these people see environmental data as valuable IP that they can sell, license restrict and control. We’ve even had companies beg us to pull our data and let them sell it for us with promises of many piles of money that we could all swim in together. These requests show a complete lack of understanding of how public domain works, an appalling disregard for the value of shared research, and outright contempt for public awareness and education. We’ve made significant strides in collecting research quality data and making it available to everyone, but there is still a lot of work to do.

While many see today’s information blockade as a terrifying sign of things to come, we see it as a call to arms. This is exactly why we shouldn’t trust governments to be the gate keepers of our data. This is exactly why we shouldn’t let research that we fund with our tax dollars be kept from public view. This is exactly why we shouldn’t tolerate companies and organizations collecting data in public and licensing it back to us. As long as these walls and restrictions are in place, anything we have access to today can disappear tomorrow. We, as a global community, need to recognize this as the mis-judgement that it is and route around it.

But what can we do about it? Here are a few places to start:

  • Contact your local politicians and demand that all environmental data that your city generates or already possesses be placed into the public domain.
  • Demand that your city officials cut ties with any companies collecting data in your city and not releasing it under public domain.
  • If you are a researcher, refuse to sign agreements and licenses for restricted environmental data and instead work to create open alternatives.
  • If you have an environmental dataset, open it up. The data, any related algorithms or calculations and how it’s collected need to be public.
  • If you have an environmental start-up, discard any plans that see data as your IP.
  • If you are funding or supporting any environmental start-up, insist their data is open.
  • We’d love you to support Safecast with a one time or recurring donation or by getting one of our devices and helping collect data, but if radiation or air quality isn’t interesting to you we’re happy to point to projects measuring other things openly.

If you work at a company selling environmental data, it’s time for you to find a new business plan. Your actions and land-grabbing is now actively harming the public. This sounds like a battle cry, and in many ways it is. As the public, we can no longer sit by and trust these companies and governments to have our best interest in mind. We need to make them irrelevant.

(originally posted on Safecast)