Civil Society

Open data at the intersection of environment & human health

A listserve post this week from inside the EPA indicates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to encourage software developers to use its data to make useful applications about the environment and human health.

The U.S is farther ahead than Canada on open government and open data.   South of the border, the Open Government Initiative encourages federal agencies to make data more accessible so it can be used in innovative and helpful ways. EPA makes a lot of its original data more accessible via this site, but many software developers who create innovative open-access applications for the public out of public data don’t even know it exists. They also don’t know that agencies encourage this kind of activity.

Other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have made their data available and done a great job of building awareness about their data (see the Community Health Data Initiative and the Health Data Community). The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored a challenge called Apps for Healthy Kids that encouraged developers to make apps to keep kids healthy.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. wants ideas for how they can better reach software developers and the people who would use these applications.

North of the border we need to be pressuring Canadian government to open up more of our data to the citizens who pay for it, and to better use our tax dollars by connecting with altruistic open data developers who are ready and willing to create applications for the public good.

Community storytelling leads to civic participation. How can this inform communication strategies on the big global issues?

It’s curious how that seems to happen:  you hear of something for the first time, and then within a day or two you come across it several times.

Channel one…

I’ve been trying to cull ‘stuff’.  For an information-aholic, that is a painful struggle.  As part of the process, I’m glancing through some journals, hoping to get them out the door.  Last week, I came across a journal article from 2006 (free here) – a broad study looking at how storytelling increases civic participation [by Yong Chan Kim & Sandra Ball-Rokeach].

As a casual observer over the years, it has seemed to me that there are two communication strategies used by environmental groups: lecturing and guilt.  ‘Here’s some scary statistics showing why this is real’ with a call to action like ‘contact your MP’, and/or variations on ‘shouldn’t you be doing something to stop it’.  In my opinion there hasn’t been a sea change in public behaviour toward stopping climate change.  So it’s puzzled me that environmental groups so steadfastly seem to keep trying the same communication strategies.

This storytelling/civic participation study to me seems to offer some really intriguing brainstorming starting-points. Say the challenge is this:  how can organizations seeking public behaviour change on a global problem make a massive issue (one that would necessitate millions/billions of individuals making dramatic behaviour change in order to begin shifting the problem) relevant to the individual who isn’t convinced that their individual efforts will result in any change?  The individual thinks, ‘hey, I might be willing to undertake these big lifestyle inconveniences, this significant change, if I believed my individual effort would for sure lead to some tangible result’.  Saying ‘hey, if every one of us does and that’s billions of people, there’s the tangible result’ isn’t convincing.  It’s an anti-motivator.  We just don’t believe that billions of people are going to … so this big life inconvenience we have gone through will have been for naught. It doesn’t feel worth it.

Channel two…

If you didn’t catch any of Wade Davis’ CBC Radio Massey Lectures, you really must (2009, but rebroadcast last week].  He’s a wonderful writer, and the tales he reads to the audience are enthralling, captivating, engaging stories.  If you can only catch one, I recommend the one that I heard last week, Lecture 4. [CBC charges $ 10 if you want to hear them ($50 with a case), but the audio for Lecture 4 is free here.]

Some right-brain people like David Attenborough learn from facts and numbers.  In this video, he shows viewers the one bit of information that shifted him from being a climate change denier (which he was for a long while) to being a person who accepted what most scientists had been claiming, and who was concerned.   But there are lots and lots of more left-brained people like me who learn best from narrative.  Wade Davis draws us into a sort of spell like remarkable fiction does – his adventures in faraway civilizations allow us to witness current realities in other parts of the world, and he lets us draw our own conclusions.  He tells us of his concerns about climate change at the very end, once we have done some travelling with his glasses on, once we have come to empathize with the characters in his stories.  He draws listeners in with the astonishing skill of the master storyteller, guiding us to feeling wonder, guiding us through discoveries of remote cultures as though we too had climbed off the planes and put on our hiking boots, while suggesting ideas that push us – but gently push us – toward critical thinking here and there.

One of the challenges I think, between Channel one and Channel two above, is how to make the global local.   One other bit from the study I should add: one of the discoveries is that storytelling has a particularly strong link to civic participation among minority ethnic groups (which struck me as a happy coincidence and a useful bit of info for groups like RangiChangi Roots).  How I read the study is that ‘hyper-local geographic communities’ or ‘hyper-focussed ethnic communities’ are most effective for the kinds of storytelling that leads to actual civil society-building and citizen engagement.  These hyper-local / hyper-focussed communities are small enough that people feel that their identity and sense of belonging builds as the storytelling among those communities builds.  So what I’m pondering at the moment is how can we do a better job of using this information – which is fascinating in its potential applications for building community media, intercultural communication and civil society – to the macro, aerial view; to the huge, overwhelming global issues?

Channel three…

I was reminded again today of wanting to write this post, when I read via Twitter somewhere about an upcoming Vancouver event with Alexandra Cousteau July 20th. (cost is the $27 Aquarium admission fee). For context, a quick bit about her and her mission:

She is a globally recognized advocate on water quality, dedicated to advocating the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water resources in order to preserve a healthy planet. Her global initiatives seek to inspire and empower individuals to protect not only the ocean and its inhabitants, but also the human communities that rely on the purity of our freshwater resources.

Here’s the bit that jumped out at me:

Alexandra continues the work of her renowned grandfather Jaques-Yves and father Philippe Cousteau. At 34, she has already mastered the remarkable storytelling tradition handed down to her and has the unique ability to draw audiences into the weighty issues of policy, politics and action.

I’m not sure I’ll get to the Aquarium event, but I’m intrigued about her communication strategies – does she manage to stay away from lecturing/guilt?  How does she integrate storytelling, find a connection for individuals to relate to a huge global issue, and to what extent does she ‘lightbulb’ people so that when they leave, they think they are very likely to respond to her call to action?  All of this of course completely depends on who her audience is.  I’m assuming it’s the general public.  If it’s aimed mainly at kids, the takeaway for me personally might not have so much value.  Or if it’s an audience with a big number of people who’d likely identify themselves as environmentalists, her message will probably be quite different.  Whether or not I go, at some stage I’ll do a bit of a ‘dig’ to see if I can find anything about Cousteau communication strategies and the use of storytelling.