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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Heavy rain fell on Santa Barbara the first week of February. But that didn’t stop the flood of data scientists and researchers arriving for the second annual NCEAS Environmental Data Science Summit. About 70 attendees, ranging widely in expertise and experience, convened at the beach-side Cabrillo Pavilion to discuss this year’s theme: Communicating and Translating Environmental Data.

The two-day “unconference” serves as a gathering space for the environmental data science community to discuss technical developments and ethical questions. It’s also an opportunity to spark collaboration among practitioners of different backgrounds and experience. This year’s theme prompted participants to consider how improved data communication can help the public understand and use environmental data.

Closing the gap between scientific and public understanding can preserve public trust in science, which is crucial for addressing climate change, habitat loss, biodiversity conservation, and other pressing environmental issues. Summit participants took a proactive approach to the topic by exploring how environmental data can inform issues of environmental justice in a changing world.

“Communicating and translating data is paramount to my work,” said Layla Kilolu, a chief research analyst for the State of Hawaii. Her primary interests are in the community benefits and burdens of renewable energy projects. Knowing that energy projects can easily lead to controversy, she came to the Summit looking to connect with others who use, visualize, and communicate data to the public.

“There was a lot of lively conversation,” said Kilolu. Kilolu leads a team of data analysts and also represents public interests in utility regulations. She is familiar with the gap between available technical information and the public’s need to understand environmental projects.

Like any good conversation with colleagues or friends, the Summit is minimally structured to support open and organic connections. First, participants spend some minutes in personal reflection, then share their thoughts with others. These discussions, augmented by inspiring keynote speakers, develop into full-blown project presentations by the following afternoon.

Layla Kilolu was inspired by the project presentations. “There were so many fantastic ideas and I wish I had the opportunity to work on all the breakout group projects,” she said. “At the Summit I began developing my own project focusing on Hawaii's already-existing tools relating to climate change and natural hazards.” She also plans to incorporate more data visualization into her work. 

“Overall, I found that folks that I spoke with were interested in justice and equity issues in their work,” said Kilolu, who appreciated this common interest. Through her work in energy regulation in Hawaii, she is familiar with the connection between environmental issues and social justice, yet she doesn’t always see researchers address that connection head-on.

Clinton Johnson, a prominent leader at the intersection of geography, GIS, and social justice, also appreciated that common interest. “There is a lot of interest and power in collective and interdisciplinary collaboration in addressing complex environmental issues,” he said. During his keynote address, he led the Summit beyond the technical use of data to consider critical thinking about data and community engagement.

“The connection between environmental data science and environmental justice is profound and multifaceted,” he said, referencing outcomes such as resource distribution and public health disparities. Data can be an important tool for uncovering injustices, however, “data can reinforce systemic biases,” he warned. “Assuming a lack of bias in the existing policy, data, and community landscapes can lead to sustained or increased injustice regardless of one's intentions.”

On the final day of the Summit, a vibrant sunset illuminated the coastline. Ideas that were planted on the first day of the Summit emerged as seven discernible projects, ranging from science communication guidelines to ethical frameworks to critical analyses of how data tools impact the public. 

“The discussions and insights shared at the summit reinforced the notion that data science, when applied thoughtfully and ethically, can be a formidable tool in our quest for an improved society,” said Johnson.  

So far, at least two lasting efforts sprouted from the previous 2023 Summit: the Santa Barbara Charter has gathered 125 signatures and a peer-reviewed paper about broadening participation in environmental data science will soon be published. We look forward to another fruitful event next spring. Save the date for Feb 4-6, 2025.

Category: Feature

Tags: Environmental Justice, Environmental Data Science, EDS Summit, Events, Data Science, Equity