Building trust and understanding data’s different meanings

Open Environmental Data Project
5 min readSep 7, 2023

This is the fourth post for the Community Data Hubs Documentation series. This series will document the thought and conversation trajectories within the process of creating the building blocks of our Community Data Hubs model and OEDP’s broader data stewardship work. The first of these blogs will document the progress of the Community Data Hubs Advisory Group, which is working alongside OEDP to tackle conceptual questions related to the model, including social and technical infrastructures, stewardship, and community data.

This post documents the second meeting of the Community Data Hubs Advisory Group on May 31, 2023. There were two main sets of questions that drove the conversation:

  1. What major themes should we cover in future Environmental Data Labs?¹
  2. What can “data’’ mean to communities?

What major themes should we cover in future Environmental Data Labs?

This strategic question prompted major considerations around trust, data sovereignty, capacity and interest, and intergenerational approaches.

  • Trust came up as a central issue. Advisory Group members noted that it is very difficult to build relationships solely in virtual settings, and a reliance on the virtual connection is problematic in areas where internet access is inaccessible or too expensive. Additionally, we recognize that it can be difficult to navigate the tension between project-based funding timelines and the time required to build meaningful relationships, complete iterative cycles of work and adjust project goals or timelines to respond to changing community needs that may not have been a part of the original plan. What tools for transparency and accountability can be used to build and maintain trust?
  • Advisory group members noted that data sovereignty intersects with trust and connectivity, as many Tribes and Indigenous communities choose to maintain their own servers, rather than connect to internet service for both logistical and sovereignty reasons. Maintaining data on their own servers necessitates that any researcher or technical partner must be in conversation with the Indigenous community to understand their knowledge or information needs and priorities before any data is shared with external partners.
  • The community partner’s capacity and interest in using the data are also critical pieces to understand: these two elements affect one another and the overall feasibility and longevity of the project. Capacity includes both dedicated time to manage collection, storage, and sharing and the ability to access and use servers, hardware, and the data itself. Interest and capacity also inform how a Community Data Hubs approach could support the partner’s priorities with data. A community’s priorities or desired outcomes for their data could range from sensemaking (i.e., making meaning from the data, using or combining it with other information or knowledges), to building awareness of issues (i.e., getting community members involved in understanding more about environmental factors, what is going well, or what needs to be addressed), or inclusion in regulatory processes or litigation (i.e., using collected data to advocate, hold industries accountable to regulation, or influence policy and rulemaking).
  • We explored how we might take an intergenerational approach to build community-level governance; the tacit knowledge carried by elders and others with foundational context and local knowledge is substantial but likely absent from debates about new data infrastructures.

What can “data’’ mean to communities?

This question was pulled from a list of starter questions initially posed by Advisory Group members themselves. A major consideration stemming from this question is that communities are often parsing through data alongside multiple forms of information and knowledge (see the DIKW pyramid as an imperfect example) and can hit upon questions like: What is known? What information could be or already is collected? What can be done with information? What stories do we want to tell? What are we comfortable sharing and with whom?

There is an example of this question playing out in Tokyo after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. At the same time as hackerspaces were creating open hardware monitors to understand the radiation contamination, a growing movement of families and mothers were becoming politically active in discussions on this data. The hackerspaces were very tech-driven, concerned with the accuracy of the measurements and training citizens to make the devices, while the movement of families and mothers were more concerned about the health of children and food testing. While this didn’t cause conflicts, this example points to the idea that communities are not monolithic in their concerns and priorities with data; they are made up of individuals whose interests are influenced by specific geographies, histories, generational understanding, priorities, and capacities.

Insights and questions to revisit during the CDH Co-Design Process:

  • We will prioritize partnerships with communities local to our team or else fundraise for travel in order to meet our community partners in-person at least once during our working time together. How can we structure connections and meetings with future community partner(s) that reinforce a shared sense of trust and understanding?
  • To address the constraints of project-based funding, we will prioritize unrestricted funding sources, work to build contingency plans and open source documentation so that the community or other partners can pick up where we left off if necessary. We will also focus on smaller modules that can build and fit with something larger rather than building a complex piece of infrastructure that has burdensome maintenance requirements or requires a high level of technical literacy.
  • What existing resources can help us structure meaningful first conversations with community partners in order to understand the data landscape and what data means to them? How can we use these resources to understand multiple or competing priorities, capacities, collaboration dynamics, or scopes of data use and accessibility? We hope to add to existing resources, using our Environmental Data Labs as spaces to brainstorm questions to understand partners’ data goals and uses, and how to leverage different technical and legal aspects of data governance.
  • To incorporate intergenerational approaches to building community level governance, we will strive to engage with those who might be at the periphery of digital or data topics about their knowledge and histories with environmental topics. We will be deliberate in maintaining a documentation process that avoids jargon and provides insight on decision-making to ensure accessibility for those learning about digital tools for data governance for the first time.
  • Understanding that communities are not monolithic, and that data can mean something different to everyone, necessitates an understanding of how differing interests and priorities influence the core questions we might ask at the beginning of a project. These questions include: What do you care about? What are the stories you want to tell? What do you know? And how does what you know translate into data and information you’re comfortable sharing?

Resources mentioned:

  1. Environmental Data Labs are workshops held on specific topics in data stewardship and governance, though not necessarily in relation to the Community Data Hubs model. See more on the Environmental Data Labs in our “Commonly used terms and starter questions” post.



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