Engaging and empowering through dialogue
Engaging people isn't just valuable because they represent a source of data. Giving people the chance to contribute confers a sense of ownership of the issues, empowerment and responsibility.
Prof. Jacqueline McGlade
Elinor Ostrom was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her pioneering analysis of how communities devise ways to manage shared natural resources equitably and sustainably — in ways, indeed, that are far more effective and affordable than simply allocating public or private property rights.
A key element in such management systems is the way that users of a natural resource — the local community — serve as the monitors and collective guardians of that resource.
EEA recognises the need to engage people, rather than treating them as passive recipients of information
It's certainly a lesson relevant to the present context: providing access to information is essential for effective democracy; but engaging people in collecting data and sharing their knowledge is arguably just as important.
This is very much at the heart of the work of my organisation, the European Environment Agency. At EEA, we gather and analyse environmental information from across Europe and share that knowledge with citizens, governments, academia, international partners and so forth.
From our perspective and that of policymakers, people and organisations represent an enormous potential resource. The reason — as Elinor Ostrom recognises — is that local people have an awareness of the environment and changes on the ground that other forms of monitoring and management can’t replicate.
But engaging people isn't just valuable because they represent a source of data. Giving people the chance to contribute confers a sense of ownership of the issues, empowerment and responsibility.
Essentially, therefore, our ultimate goal — protecting the environment that sustains us — is served best not by simply providing data to passive citizens but rather engaging them in two-way communication.
EEA benefits from exchange with multiple sectors, including indigenous groups...
In practice, EEA engages in dialogue with a variety of sectors and groups.
In the Arctic, for instance, indigenous people form part of the EEA's global observation network. We know already that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. But outside the territories, little is understood of the true cost to indigenous people. We need to rectify this if we are to make the right decisions.
Another important sector is industry. As a significant source of emissions to the environment and consumer of resources, industry holds information vital for governments and citizens.
But the firms themselves can also improve their efficiency and environmental impact by identifying and sharing best practices.
The EEA facilitates this process, for instance through its European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register or 'E PRTR'. The Register contains information on the quantity and location of 91 pollutants released to air, water and land by more than 24 000 facilities across Europe, engaged in 65 economic activities.
Societies and users of the countryside
Already, local non-governmental organisations collect biodiversity data in some countries. But other groups can also contribute.
For instance, there are some 7 million hunters in Europe, capable of providing localised information and already well organised in national associations. And as the custodians of much of the countryside, farmers should also be engaged more.
The key is creating incentives and structures to gather internationally comparable data
The key with all such groups is creating opportunities and incentives for them to contribute accurate information in a format directly comparable with data captured elsewhere — nationally and internationally.
In an area with the size and diversity of the EU, this obviously represents a significant challenge. Technologically, multiple devices and systems needs to work together seamlessly.
If done right, however, the potential is huge — simultaneously meeting the needs of individuals, companies and governments for information at all scales.
EEA is putting this into practice with Eye on Earth
Working together with Microsoft, EEA is putting these ideas into effect. New information and communication technologies mean that — in a single location — we can now gather, organise and access data of different types from potentially huge numbers of sources.
EEA and Microsoft launched the Eye On Earth portal in May 2008 with WaterWatch, an application providing information on bathing water quality. It has proven hugely popular, with hundreds of thousands of visits each month during the summer. And this is partly because local people are encouraged to give their opinion on beach and water quality, supplementing and validating (or perhaps refuting) official information.
On Tuesday this week Eye on Earth was improved to include a new application — AirWatch — and shifted on to Windows Azure, making it one of the newest applications built on the platform.
The AirWatch interface provides interactive, near real-time information on air pollutants from global- to street-level, based on data from air monitoring stations, computer modelling and citizens' input. It translates complex scientific data into easily understandable terminology and is available to more than 500 million EU citizens, ultimately in 25 languages.
When complete Eye On Earth will house additional applications focussing on issues such as water, soil, ozone and nitrogen dioxide.
We urgently need to boost popular understanding of the environment and faith in public institutions and information
It's quite clear that scientists and public bodies need to do much more to explain environmental issues to the public.
A Eurobarometer survey in 2008, for example, revealed that 44 % of Europeans feel badly informed about environmental issues and many do not trust the information provided by public bodies.
By engaging citizens as contributors and empowering them with relevant and comparable information, services like Eye on Earth will go some way to addressing this need.