This paper builds a case for a governance framework that will support the development of an equitable, open-access digital ecosystem of environmental data as a digital public good. Credible multidisciplinary environmental data, and the applications of this data, are digital public goods which are necessary conditions for an equitable, sustainable and resilient society. The pace and rapidity of the development of data technologies, both in terms of scale, scope and quantity of data gathered, requires a governance framework to ensure that this data enhances and does not undermine planetary wellbeing. Concerted efforts are needed to establish and implement a digital ecosystem governance framework. Some of the key messages in this paper include:
1. Environmental data are digital public goods and a necessary precondition to achieve human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals:
- The availability of various types of data on the environment (referred to in this document as Environmental Data), including on critical issues such as biodiversity and climate, is crucial to measure progress towards achieving the SDGs.
- Environmental data are crucial for the management of environmental capital, which supports all other forms of capital, e.g. human and financial.
- Access to Environmental Data is a precondition for other human rights, and may also be conceived as a distinct human right.
- Human rights law imposes specific procedural obligations on States concerning access to environmental information.
2. Environmental digital public goods are a distinct category of public goods requiring a specific governance framework, which includes (but is not limited to):
- Standards and interoperability: The generation of insights on our planet’s environmental health requires different actors to access, exchange, integrate and cooperatively use data in a coordinated and collaborative manner.
- Quality control: Environmental data must be curated and processed appropriately to warrant an optimal quality level, to ensure that it takes into account the ecological and social complexity of its processes, and to promote trust in end-users.
- Cross- and intersectionality: Environmental processes are interrelated with social, economic and cultural issues. The provision of environmental digital public goods must also take intersectionality into account, and address equity, diversity and inclusion issues in order to avoid deepening the digital divide.
- Safeguards: Environmental data and insights are often produced in public-private partnerships. These need a safeguards framework to ensure they are conducted in the public interest, including appropriate capture, storage and access to personal information, and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
- Specific risks and negative externalities: Environmental digital public goods must not produce more negative impact than the value they add. This includes considering the energy and materials footprint of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure, data sets, and algorithms. Open access to Environmental Data can exacerbate the risk of negative externalities, including land speculation, illegal mining, or poaching.
3. There are a number of key challenges to overcome in order to implement a governance framework that will achieve equitable coverage of and open-access to Environmental Data:
- Financing and business models: There are a lack of sustainable business models that can pay for data collection, storage, processing, analysis of digital public goods. and the lack of global financing strategies for essential Environmental Data sets.
- Data governance: Several problems must be addressed, including norms, access, licensing, taxonomies, fragmentation, sovereignty, monopolies, mining, curation, custodianship, stewardship, cybersecurity, algorithmic bias, quality control and capacity building.
- Resource efficiency: Multiple actors are investing in open data products, algorithms, and software, leading to duplication, incoherent outcomes, and inefficient use of resources. A coherent governance framework is needed in order to foster collaboration and mitigate inefficiencies in resource allocations, while allowing for a decentralized loosely coordinated approach.
- Use of data: Environmental digital public goods and services that will be used for profit purposes must be governed with policies to maintain the quality, transparency, and availability of products.
- Safeguards and standards: Public-private partnerships need safeguards and standards so
that they can maintain public trust and avoid conflicts of interest.
4. The following Environmental Data outcomes and outputs are proposed in the digital public goods action agenda and roadmap:
A. Digital Ecosystem for the Planet Partnership (DEPP)
Establish a multi-stakeholder engagement platform to:
- Promote dialogue among public, private, and civil society actors
- Contribute to the Global Environmental Data Strategy, the Digital Charter for
Environmental Data and the Global Data Commons initiatives
- Build stakeholder capacity for policy engagement and use of Environmental Data as a digital public good
- Foster a culture of data generation, sharing, collaboration, use and trust
- Broker collective leadership and collaborative policy analysis among stakeholders
- Develop a human-centered design approach to capturing, managing and achieving the goals of the DEP
B. Environmental Data Strategy and World Environment Situation Room
An actively managed digital platform curated by UNEP to monitor global environmental issues and risks, as well as identify gaps in technology, solutions and data by:
- Curating, aggregating and visualizing the best available public Environmental Data
- Developing and implementing the global Environmental Data strategy
- Supporting predictive analysis and real-time analysis of hazards and environmental crises
- Providing customized analysis to UN Resident Coordinators, UN Common Country Assessments and UN Development Cooperation Frameworks
C. Digital Charter for Environmental Data
An international framework enabling data discovery, access, licencing and “APIs for Earth” by:
- Supporting the implementation of a global Environmental Data strategy
- Addressing federated data sharing through the creation of open standards, safeguards, and scorecards
- Establishing an Open Source for Earth Foundation and “APIs for Earth” standards
- Endorsing a safeguard framework for the digital ecosystem
D. An underpinning conceptual model that considers the global Environmental Data platforms and their management, maintenance and usability for all stakeholder groups.
This should consist of 7 distinct layers:
- physical (hardware, cloud)
- data (of all variety)
- semantic (defining the objects) and ontological (the relations of objects)
- evidential (proofs of data provenance and methods)
- application (processing data)
- interface (contextual to the user)
- ethical (including inclusion, diversity, equity, and Indigenous data sovereignty)