Imagine you are planning to renovate your home. It’s a big investment that could affect your family and neighbourhood for years to come. You estimate the project cost, assess the potential advantages and disadvantages, and make a careful choice. But what if you were quoted prices without knowing what others paid, if contractors were reluctant to share the costs of similar projects, or if details about house sales were confidential? Making the right decision would be much harder without such data.
This situation is similar to aspects of Canada’s current environmental assessment processes, the tool governments uses to evaluate potential impacts from proposed industrial developments ranging from roads and pipelines to dams and mines. While summaries of assessment results are usually publicly available, the underlying data or methods are sometimes difficult or impossible to access or unclear.
Typically, consultants are hired by the proponents of such projects to conduct studies, collect and analyze data, and estimate the project's potential social, economic, and environmental impacts. These impacts include economic benefits such as jobs, and environmental costs, such as loss of fish habitat, barriers to caribou migration, and the potential impact of accidents, such as oil spills or dam failures. However, a critical shortcoming of these assessments is that they do not contain the data on which they are based in an open format – that is, in a way that can be easily and publicly examined.
Interested stakeholders, like our homeowner, can thus be left wondering about what data were collected, how they were analysed, and how the conclusions were reached. This fundamental lack of transparency has contributed to the erosion of public trust, and is one reason for increasing public concern about large development projects.
As scientists who study the natural world and the benefits humans receive from it, we are strong proponents of open data because we know how important data are to understanding how people affect their world. These are data-intensive activities, and accuracy depends on having access to the best available baseline and monitoring data, over large geographic areas and timelines.
Encourage support for open data recommendation
Evidence-based decision making relies on data, and while knowledge is power, open data is empowering. Enabling anyone - members of the public, industry, government, scientists - to consider how evidence informs the decision-making process is not only in the public interest, it is also democratically and morally right. Canadians deserve to have the best available description of their country easily available to them.
In August 2016, in keeping with its stated support for evidence-based decision making, the federal government asked an expert panel to review Canada's environmental assessment processes by engaging broadly with Canadians. The goal of the review is to restore public confidence in how large industrial projects are assessed, and to introduce new, fair and transparent processes. Scientists across the country engaged with the review, suggesting a number of key ways to strengthen the scientific basis of environmental assessment processes, including open data.
The panel released its report in early April, and as scientists who emphasize the importance of open data we were pleased to see a recommendation for legislation requiring all data collected for environmental assessments be consolidated in a central, publicly accessible, database. The panel concludes that this will reduce uncertainty and increase transparency in the process, rebuilding public trust in environmental assessments. We strongly support the expert panel’s recommendation to open up access to scientific data underpinning environmental assessments.
Making all baseline and monitoring data from large development projects publicly available also makes sense given the federal government’s commitment to making its data open by 2020. And the technologies available today for data collection, compilation, and distribution continue to evolve, making open data ever easier to achieve.
Having a collective understanding of baseline conditions (i.e., what our house is worth now, how noise affects killer whales, or how corrosive bitumen is to pipes), and the costs and benefits of potential activities (the renovations), is vital to making the best possible evidence-based decisions, and to demonstrate these decisions are made in good faith, with a rationale that has the interests of Canadians at its core.
We encourage readers to express their support for the Expert Panel's recommendations, with an emphasis on open data, via www.letstalkEA.ca until May 5.
Dr. Edward Gregr, Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia
Dr. Monica Granados, Mitacs Postdoctoral Fellow, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada
Dr. Timothée Poisot, Assistant Professor, Université de Montréal
Dr. Jeremy Kerr, Professor, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, University of Ottawa