High-level leaders track: Environment

17 Nov 2020 16:40h - 18:10h

Event report

The IGF 2020 High-Level Leaders Track: Environment tackled the future governance of environmental data. More specifically, it explored how environmental data differs from other forms of public data, and highlighted some of the safeguards needed for generating environmental data that can help us navigate our increasingly uncertain world. The discussion was moderated by Ms Ania Lichtarowicz (Senior Producer, BBC Digital Planet).

Data fragmentation

Highlighting the issue of data fragmentation, Ms Joyce Msuya (UN Environment Deputy Executive Director, UN Assistant Secretary-General) pointed out that some 700 different environmental data platforms are operated by public and private sector actors while, on average, a new data platform is launched every week. In order to address the challenge of data fragmentation, she underlined that a basic set of principles, standards, and safeguard is needed. Concrete action is already being taken by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) that has been tasked by member states to develop a global environmental strategy. UNEP is also working on an international repository – the World Environment Situation Room that can aggregate and validate environmental datasets so as to facilitate the monitoring of progress on environment-related sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Data ownership vs data stewardship?

Speaking on the subject of environmental data ownership, Ms Joyce Murray (Minister of Digital Government, Canada) noted that the focus should be on data stewardship rather than on ownership. In that context, she added that it is important to identify the rules that apply to data and who is overseeing the rules, since data will be generated, collected, and used by both private and public organisations.

Transparency, data standards, and responsibility

In addition to the efforts needed to mitigate data fragmentation and better data stewardship, Ms Celina Lee (Co-Founder & CEO, Zindi) stressed the need for greater transparency of environmental data. Despite the fact that many datasets are available, very often they are not accompanied by appropriate documentation and lack transparency as to where the data comes from, what it actually represents, and how it has been collected. Moreover, environmental data has to comply with quality standards that can facilitate the interoperability of the dataset, whereas those who collect data have the responsibility to ensure that data sources are recognised and can benefit fully from the products derived from the gathered information.

Inclusion of indigenous voices

Ms Kelsey Leonard (Advisory Council Member, U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network) emphasised that discussions on environmental data governance would not be complete without the inclusion of indigenous voices. The participation of indigenous peoples in the data governance infrastructure is necessary so that detrimental practices such as data colonialism are not promulgated. Although much of the environmental data is being mined and extracted from indigenous lands and territories, indigenous people are often omitted from discussions about how gathered datasets are being used and as such cannot participate in the informed decision-making processes. That said, she recognised that a number of movements have been established, including the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, which have put forward the principle of indigenous data sovereignty aimed at increasing their ownership and participation in environmental data governance.

Trusted, inclusive, and secure Internet

Reflecting on the inputs made by the other panellists, Ms Amy Luers (Global Lead, Sustainability Science, Microsoft) emphasised the connection between the Internet and our natural environment. Along these lines, she acknowledged that a trusted, inclusive, and secure Internet is crucial for environmental data governance. With regard to trust, it was highlighted that misinformation is one of the major challenges that brings into question environmental trends and developments. On inclusivity, attention should be paid to those who have the capacity to turn the gathered data into insights and knowledge, while security should be observed from the point of view of individuals who should feel empowered and safe to participate in digital data governance.

Facilitation of environmentally sound technology

Addressing challenges to data governance, Ms Rose Mwebaza (Director, Climate Technology Centre and Network) touched upon the issue of unsustainability of the technology used to gather environment-related data. Based on this, the focus is on the amount of e-waste generated from the tools used to collect or store data. It was pointed out that greater transfer of environmentally sound technology is needed, in particular, between developed and developing countries. Moreover, the existing digital divide, which also extends to the field of data governance and thus the issue of data access, was underscored.