Technology Innovator Interviews

Open Environmental Data Project, Defenders of Wildlife & The Commons
Common Knowledge
October 12, 2021
Technology Innovator Interviews

The following is a repost from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, as part of the Digital Service for the Planet series. The original post can be read here

We are continuing our Digital Service for the Planet series with

Shannon Dosemagen of Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP), R. John Dawes of The Commons and Jacob Malcom of Defenders of Wildlife. They have each worked with federal agencies from the Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency to the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Government Accountability Office. They bring an intimate understanding of how to design and build technical solutions for conservation policies and how to make tools and data accessible to the public. With decades of collective experience working in this space, they offer their perspective on how a Digital Service for the Planet could lead to the federal government being a better buyer, partner, and consumer of the data and technological innovations that are necessary to support the country’s conservation, water and stewardship priorities.


For starters, what were some of the key components of the Digital Service for the Planet (DSP) that resonated with your team?

Shannon: The Digital Service for the Planet can be a government innovation hub in which the cultural, social and policy landscape where environmental technology exists, could be tackled with coordinated grace. Although the Biden-Harris Administration agenda is ripe with climate and environmental justice goals, we don’t have the infrastructure necessary to see the agenda bring systemic change. To meet the goals of the Administration, we should also be thinking about addressing the administrative and bureaucratic barriers to adopting useful technology, data and information.

John: The future for any successful conservation program to declaratively move the needle on goals is to verify the impact of their investments and monitor the continued efficacy of the practice.

Every model is, by definition, handicapped by the data it receives and the methodological biases of the creator. It’s also important that these models help guide agency decision making but should not replace effort to identify priorities of landowners and the local constituents tackling the work on the ground. For example, even though Google Maps gives me a solid resource from getting from point A to point B, I still need to drive my car. Models are information products meant to guide decision makers but they are not gospel and by no means replace the added value and processes required to understand what landowners are willing and able to accomplish in the conservation sector.

This is quite tricky to navigate and, from my experience, there are limited staff at federal agencies that understand where and how models can be applied to benefit conservation outcomes. While that is indeed changing, we don’t have time for that process to happen slowly. A Digital Service for the Planet would provide the institutional support necessary to catalyze conservation technology adoption.

Jacob: One of the biggest challenges we see in conservation work, especially with the Endangered Species Act, is information sharing among federal agencies or with their permittees. That could be anything from the status of species — which you need to know to make permitting decisions — to monitoring the effects of our activities. Technology can help make essential connections rather than having data siloed within an agency, from simplified and integrated data entry to automated monitoring tools. Having a DSP is a great way to help ensure the necessary tools are developed so that you get as much efficiency as possible from technologies.

What are some key environmental challenges that your work is helping to address? Or, where is the low hanging fruit for environmental technology in government agencies that offer the greatest benefits or efficiencies?

Shannon: OEDP envisions a future where data is transparent and usable, supporting stronger systems of participatory environmental governance. To accomplish this, OEDP is building systems for people to share and contribute scientific, environmental, and contextual information.

The lowest hanging fruit for government agencies to create pathways for accessible technology adoption is to create space (such as a Digital Service for the Planet) for socialization of ideas that, even if for a moment, relinquish the tightly derived regulatory boundaries that environmental monitoring technology sits within. Instead of framing a question as “does this technology meet regulatory standards and guidelines?”, what if we started to make room for conversations that instead asked “what could this technology help tell us about the environment and where would the data currently be usable? In the future, where might we change administrative rules to accommodate the use of this technology for positive environmental outcomes?”

Without 1) the initial socialization of ideas that welcome innovation from outside the government, 2) that create a space that proactively lets designers and makers co-create and ideate with government, and 3) a lack of recognition that data and information can be powerful and useful even if it doesn’t read to the perfect point, we’re doing a disservice to the R&D and innovation landscape around environmental monitoring.

John: Building trust and deploying new technological approaches that are low risk and focused on addressing organizational barriers is key to ensuring adoption and use of the new systems. At the Commons, we have built tools that allow community partners, funders and government entities to continuously evaluate and measure the true impacts of investments in real-time.

For example, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Program is leading ground-breaking efforts to revolutionize the conservation sector by leveraging volunteer water quality monitoring efforts to verify the impact of their conservation investments with FieldDoc. Prior to FieldDoc, easy-to-use tracking systems that support simple and necessary tasks such as documenting where project work occurred, what types of best management practices (BMPs) were installed, and the extent of these practices did not exist. As a result, nonprofits, and public agencies were forced to cobble together systems that were not designed to track and report grant-funded restoration work. Leveraging FieldDoc as a core management practice tracking application, NFWF has an up-to-date view of their programmatic investments and the expected pollution reduction impact, also referred to as progress towards their pollution reduction goals.

How can agencies better communicate with each other and with the public through digital tools and a common digital infrastructure?

Shannon: Complicated systems and administrative processes hinder the large-scale adoption of accessible and usable environmental technology and its ensuing data. Creating a rich landscape in which data is available, digital infrastructure is set up for ease of use and the corresponding workflows are effective could help to solve these problems. To get there though, we will have to put attention on the parts of workflows where issues of behavior, language, and lack of political will put environmental efforts at risk on a daily basis. This is a large area of opportunity that the Digital Service for the Planet could be uniquely positioned to fill.

Jacob: Section 7 of the US Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies to help recover threatened and endangered species, and to ensure no action they carry out, permit, or fund will jeopardize a species’ existence or harm its critical habitat. This means that the Army Corps of Engineers has to help Least Terns recovery while they carry out their obligations in engineering the Mississippi River; the Environmental Protection Agency has to protect species like the Karner Blue Butterfly from extinction when approving pesticides for market; and the Natural Resource Conservation Service has to conserve Bog Turtles with grants to owners and operators of working lands, and much more.

In other words, this is a massive, all-of-government requirement to coordinate and consult that hinges on reliable, readily available data on the range and biology of listed species, the effects of actions, and more to make the best possible decisions for conserving our most imperiled species. While a simple task on the surface, the issue was much more socially complex — how could different parties trust that refinements were scientifically supported? — and technically challenging — existing tools were focused on desktop GIS applications and either emailing data or, worse, shipping CDs/DVDs. A DSP can provide the coordination and leadership that is required to ensure successful development, deployment, and adopting of effective tools to facilitate the needed advances.

Lastly, could you share some concrete drawbacks from not having a DSP, as well as benefits that could result from its creation?

Shannon: Changing the way we train the next generation of environmental stewards, so that they are encouraged to be receptive, engaged and friendly to different types of technology, and resulting information and data, could overall create a more equitably governed environment. Likewise, a place ready for change is in the language we use when talking about data usability. We should encourage a shift in language from “it’s too complicated” or “not my problem to figure out” to discourse which encourages a paradigm shift for people to understand that they are agents of change whose actions uphold or dismantle bureaucratic systems. Focusing our next efforts on places of cohesion for the socialization of new strategies in which environmental technology and data is welcomed will create different impacts and opportunities in the conservation and environmental technology space. The Digital Service for the Planet is one opportunity for pursuing this.

John: The importance of monitoring cannot be overstated and well-regarded programs often generate continued funding, unlock funding for new implementation of best management practices, and engage new stakeholders. In order for the full value of these monitoring programs to be realized, however, they need to invest the time and resources into managing their data to facilitate fast and accurate sharing with a diverse audience. This is an area that could significantly benefit from the coordinated efforts facilitated by a Digital Service for the Planet.

Jacob: The biggest drawback of not having a DSP is the potential — inevitability — for interagency data and technology fragmentation.

The Fish and Wildlife Service storing data in one format, the Army Corps of Engineers another, and so-on, culminating in lots of time and effort on siloed technologies and information. This would not only mean falling far short of what is possible in an optimal system for information sharing, but might lead to more frustration about data sharing and technology than before any changes. The benefit of a DSP is the flip: anticipating these challenges and having a structure in place to manage the change and achieve better optimization.

In addition, Shannon’s point about training the next generation to use technology for conservation is really important: a DSP can help shift culture specifically around technology, which is often the biggest challenge we face in moving to new systems and ways of doing business. Leaders are always working to manage change, and having expertise around technology to help with cultural change will be a huge benefit.The fields of citizen and community science have made significant strides over the last decade. They’ve come to reflect in part both researcher-led and community-directed projects, incorporating questions and research priorities that reflect a spectrum of sources. At the same time, the low-cost, accessible and at times open source landscape of environmental sensing projects, especially for conservation, have taken a significant step forward in providing new tactics and strategies for collecting data. The Conservation Tech space, where tech projects have contributed research that leads to policy improvement and change, is doing important work in creating a usable data landscape; on the other hand, communities that face environmental injustices and are attempting to use technology for measuring and monitoring pollution in their communities are not seeing data and information work in the ways it should.

As our partners point out, at a time when technology is more critical than ever in meeting the climate, resilience, water, conservation, and justice priorities of the country, its adoption and deployment in environmental agencies lags progress made in the private sector and other other agencies across the government.

We have an opportunity to provide clear policy, guidance, and investment around environmentally-focused technological improvements to further research and development where necessary, catalyze widespread adoption of proven techniques and build capacity to make sure all can benefit.

Stay tuned for the upcoming blogs where we will explore this further with organizations that have expertise in geospatial tools, water management, biodiversity and more!

About these organizations

Open Environmental Data Project

Open Environmental Data Project

(OEDP) envisions a future where data is transparent and usable, supporting stronger systems of participatory environmental governance. To accomplish this, OEDP is building systems for people to share and contribute scientific, environmental, and contextual information, 1) within their community, 2) between communities, and 3) as a format to increase curated and usable information between communities, researchers, and lawmakers and enablers. To learn more about our work, please visit or find us on Twitter @OpenEnviroData.

The Commons

The Commons is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to supporting the environmental movement with access to high quality digital services and open tool kits that use data to spark community action and improvement to the environment. In a climate where software and technological approaches are constantly changing, we work to empower others with the knowledge, processes, and technical capacity required to solve some of the most challenging problems in protecting and improving our natural world.

Defenders of Wildlife — Center for Conservation Innovation

Defenders of Wildlife

is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. We envision a future where diverse wildlife populations in North America are secure and thriving, sustained by a network of healthy lands and waters. In the Center for Conservation Innovation, we work at the intersection of science, technology, and policy to find creative, practical solutions for better conservation, carrying out research, developing new tools, and advocating for next-generation policies.