Article on data transparency and environmental activism

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Map showing deforestation patterns, main roads, and protected areas in the Amazon. Source: IBAMA, PRODES/INPE, and IBGE 2010

Yesterday my paper with Prof. Raoni Rajao (UFMG, Brazil) was published at the Journal for Social Movement Studies. The article examines the relation between data transparency and environmental activism in the Amazon rainforest. For this purpose, we analyze the history of PRODES and DETER, two satellite-based monitoring systems developed by the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE). We discuss its role in environmental activism and the formulation of policy toward the Amazon over the last three decades. Based on this analysis, we argue that the level of aggregation (e.g. regional figures vs. individual events) and temporality (e.g. yearly consolidations vs. near real-time releases) of open data configure different ways of performing environmental activism. Aggregated figures tend to have wider policy significance due to their simplicity and scale, yet allow very little room for reinterpretation, contribution from environmental activists, and direct use in policy implementation. Disaggregated data, while allowing more forms of (unexpected) reinterpretations and additions via the overlay of different data-sets, also require the intervention of environmental activists and other info-mediators in order to acquire meaning for the broader public. Similarly, while consolidated data-sets have the advantage of allowing more time for the creation of higher quality data, they are often published at a point in the policy-making cycle in which the negative effects of current choices are irreversible. At the same time, while more frequent data releases may lead to more responsive policies, they also place governmental agencies in a more vulnerable position since near real-time data are more prone to contain errors. Based on these considerations we conclude that monitoring data do not simply represent deforestation in the Amazon. Instead, different publics and data configurations (i.e. spatial and temporal aggregation levels) produce different objects (e.g. a threatened Amazon, a successful policy) and subjects (e.g. knowledgeable environmental activists, an unresponsive government).

You may find the full article here.

The research was supported by the University of Bremen and the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI).