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Silenced Issues 4: (Un-)Silencing Issues in Thinking Through Environmental Data

Leo Matteo Bachinger

08 May, 2017

For two years I live and work as “non-resident alien” in the US. Half-heartedly I joke that Donald Trump is “not my president”. There is a certain point to that. But what does that matter when I cross the border to fly back home to visit family and friends?

Crossing the border becomes an act of uncertainty. I can hardly comprehend what even the trivial act of border crossing implies for my colleague who hopes to visit family in Syria, or for those who need to delete their prayer app before security check. For those, who never experienced crossing borders as a trivial act due to their sexuality, religious and political beliefs, ethnicity, citizenship.

Usually perceived by others as white heterosexual male, I experienced crossing borders so far as trivial nuisance and a mundane affair. Even for me, crossing the border is no longer trivial because flying to Vienna in 2017 implies taking precautions. Is any of the research data that I carry with me on my devices thoroughly encrypted and hidden? I am researching environmental governance – if someone gains access to my archives and files, they will find detailed/diverse data on governmental institutions, documentation keeping track of policy changes through the new administration, or transcripts of interviews with environmental advocates and activists. Part of my research regards labor conditions of undocumented farm workers in the context of changing climates. These kinds of data could easily spark suspicion in any cautious border security officer, putting at risk me and my collaborators in academia and “the field”, documented or not.

As marginal risks for a thorough search of my devices may be, border control is equipped with competencies to demand access to and entirely copy the contents of any electronic or digital device crossing U.S. borders. Carrying sensitive data on my device becomes irresponsible. Keeping data online soon might become risky, too. Should the Trump administration follow through with their plans, chances are I will be forced to reveal log-in information for social media accounts. Will that include Google, where I store data I need to work on from abroad; including transcripts of interviews from informants who asked (with reason) for anonymity? Data I promised to keep confidential?

I found myself involved in organizing the local March for Science, authoring political commentaries, sharing articles and satirical pieces. Can any of this action make me immobile? How is my political writing and my right to remain mobile, my right to think carefully and work conscientiously across national borders construed? Does my digital-self as well as my data need anonymity of some kind?   

(Un-)Governing Through Environmental Data

Data, knowledge and power are tightly knotted, not only on boundaries. Data as governance means; for displaying, interpreting, knowing the world. The new administration strategically “lashes out” against climate science, environmental regulations and the overseeing agencies – through defunding, deregulation, changes in administrative staff and leadership, and the rolling back of open and public data made available through federal agencies. This purposefully and fundamentally shifts how environmental and climate change data are produced, used and distributed.

The removal of openly accessible data – and the simultaneous tying up of funds for research producing new data – has severe consequences and raises questions about how climate and and environment are governable. How can data sets be brought into conversation, and what worlds are displayed, produced, and governed in and through them (and in favor over others left unattended and ignored)? Who gets to do this interpretative work, making/enabling decisions, setting priorities and agendas? Who has the legitimacy to generate data, and what kinds of data count as such, and on what authority? Asking these questions (and finding new answers) is a political exercise for all of us.

Questions regarding coupling of power and data, and how the one enables the exercising of the other, are of course nothing new. As a sociologist trained in Austria, I have to point to the role of sociologists in the administration of the Holocaust. Their population data enabled the regime to identify, locate and deport people based on the categorization of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, race and sexuality. And IBM’s punch cards provided automated means to sort, identify and designate populations based on that data. History does not allow remaining ignorant about the responsibilities of scientists and engineers for what the kinds of data we produce, and means for processing we come up with, enable.

This does not imply that such data should not be produced. Following Nürnberg first rules for ethical scientific conduct were implemented on a large scale. Yet, there remains a striking lack of reflection about how social science, engineers and computer scientists continue producing data and new means for its processing as means for the exercise and maintenance of power.

Simultaneously, there remains a fragility of data to be abused during and for power shifts in administration. The efficiency and scope of the outlash against opposition and minorities in the aftermath of the coup d’etat in Turkey in 2016 indicates the presence of detailed data about these groups readily available. Similar in Russia, Syria, Hungary, South Africa, Chile (to name but a few). This raises further questions: Can there be inherently democratic data? How can we ensure data structures and governance to be open, transparent and democratic?

These questions are relevant also in what the West describes as “full” democracies (a list the US is not on): working at a regulatory science institution in Austria I experienced first hand how a new administration shifted the control over our own data, ability to conduct research, and the extent to which we could openly publish findings. This was not a “regime” operating, merely the routines involved in a new party taking over heading a branch of government. Can open data principles in governance and research become method to mitigate such entanglements of science and state power?

When presently working on my dissertation, I re-experience the disappearance of data with the Trump presidency. Disappearing from screen and no longer accessible, Climate Change data from government websites has moved offline. Already before the administration took over, we found references to Climate Change being deleted in the attempt to protect programs from defunding (listen particularly at 53:30 onwards). How we categorize, order and sort data, how we name things, matters. Trump led me to read Derrida.

Key collaborators for my research in government positions, who openly spoke with me about Climate Change policies before the election, fell silent. Key sources for my research became inaccessible. Organizing the March for Science, colleagues associated with the government were afraid to be visible in their organizing efforts, afraid of retaliation: jeopardizing their careers, employment, or access to research funding.

Empowering Environmental Data

Yet, data can be empowering and liberating. There is a rich environmental history where the lack, disappearance or suppression of data did not incapacitate different communities, but rather made them recognize the production of new/own data as a means for empowerment: generating and producing (missing) data repeatedly became a means for exposed communities left ignored by authorities to challenge states and industries, and give legitimacy to their concerns. To mind come  the Act Up! movement, Love Canal; or (today and in my immediate proximity) the community efforts in response to the PFOA crisis in NY and VT, or the growing number of watershed monitoring communities of different kinds around the US; I also have to think of the role of citizen science groups in challenging shale gas extraction, and of many other social movements. Communities continuously gather, produce and articulate data on environmental contamination, revealing complex environmental hazards left undone by state, regulators, and science – challenging state, science and industries alike, and allowing them to raise public concerns onto political agendas. Here rests a responsibility for STS scholars to bring our methods, questions and analytical skills to the table with communities, activists, local, state and federal governments, and in partisanship for democracy and social justice in and through diverse communities.

In this responsibility we as a discipline and individual researcher have to become more cognizant about our own openness to the diversity of communities we work with, and produce our data with and about ... More explicitly, we cannot afford ideologically one-sided partisanship on the micro-level in combating macro-scale issues, such as Climate Change, just as we cannot affording the ignorance and exclusion of the experiences, needs and local situated knowledges of communities that run against our personal political ideals in seeking solutions to these issues. Perhaps STS scholars, students and researchers need to become better in its openness to those communities we would expect to find ourselves in opposition to.

Karin Patzke1’s work on environmental preservation in agricultural communities in Texas finds deep care for environmental preservation, building off of unexpected repertoires and logics. I find engaged activism in preserving farmland during my emergent work with – mostly republican – farmers in NY state, doing crucial, yet fairly invisible work on environmental conservation and Climate Change mitigation.

All this comes with its own set of questions: What kinds of data can citizens (not) produce? How to ensure data openness and sharing? How can data become usable for e.g. government institutions – without falling into extractive practices of citizen labor? The role of STS is help finding – and re-iterating – answers to such and related questions, which implies a different than ideological-political partisanship. And in turn we will have to confront questions regarding our own discipline, its purpose and commitments, but also the risks, bargains, and responsibilities that such partisanship implies and affords for researchers along different career trajectories, from different cultural, ethnic, and epistemological traditions and backgrounds.

Under the Trump presidency I see a newly growing investment of STS in activists contributing to community efforts that emerge from an sense of necessity. Canadian STS scholars, amongst them e.g. Michelle Murphy, took a lead in the EDGI data rescue effort in response to the disappearance of environmental and climate change data on U.S. government websites – an effort that grew into a substantial citizen-carried effort. STS can be key resource in building community capacity, enabled through such partisanship.

This is a central lesson I draw from my work while simultaneously informing my epistemological commitments. With colleagues I try to work out how data can empower communities to participate in environmental governance – Laura Rabinow and I explore community based critical water data mapping as means to supplement governmental knowledge production in ways that leave openings for meaningful citizen engagement and critique. Together, we hope to identify data gaps and incommensurabilities, open spaces in which communities can formulate critiques through data, articulate ignored environmental hazards as they play out in their localized context, and map capacities to take on environmental challenges. Ron Eglash and I use similar tools teaching high school students how to engage with environmental data, helping them to better understand and engage with the intersecting worlds we live in.

Colleagues at my department and in many other places explore with their communities similar means in the context of fracking, teaching K-12 students – contributing to their local communities. Colleagues at Bennington College are working hard with their communities to take drinking water testing into their own hands. We also see how data can potentially become a means for empowering different communities.

The stakes – not only in regards to Climate Change – are high. Elevated stakes pose new challenges for STS that force a re-thinking of our epistemological, methodological and political commitments. For individual researchers in their travels, international collaborations and work with and under governments; in the responsibilities for the kinds of data and knowledge we produce in times of large political shifts.

And in the roles we can, want, and feel obliged to take on, when we see ourselves as society confronted with unprecedented challenges of our time. Challenges that require bringing together multiple forms of knowledge, data, data publics, and expertise of different disciplines, cultures, and communities – be that in combating climate change, or for example aging, health care, democratic deliberation, globalization, computerization, or migration.

Leo Matteo Bachinger is PhD student at RPI's Department for Science and Technology Studies. He earned a MA in STS from the University of Vienna. Currently he works on the environmental governance of extreme heat.

1Patzke, Karin (2017), "Valuing Constituency: Property Assessments, Land Management and Environmental Stewardship in Central Texas" (currently unpublished doctoral dissertation). Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.