Environmental Justice Data User Group Meeting Recap (and Next Steps)

by Bob Gradeck

January 6, 2016

On December 4th, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center hosted the first in a series of data user group conversations on the topic of environmental justice in partnership with the Allegheny County Health Department. The meeting was held at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. Nearly thirty people joined us for the conversation. Participants came from government, academia, and nonprofit environmental organizations. In this blog post, I’ll share a few observations from the meeting and talk about next steps.

We launched data user groups to allow people to build relationships with other data users, learn from one another about data, contribute to efforts to improve data quality and documentation, share data publication priorities, provide feedback to data publishers, and collaborate on projects. More details on data user groups can be found on the Regional Data Center’s Website and blog. Slides containing an agenda from the meeting are also available.

Participants welcomed the opportunity to talk about data. An informal show of hands indicated that everyone in the room had experience working with environmental data in some fashion. The initial conversation revolved around the individual work participants were doing with data related to environmental justice. Participants also discussed the kinds of data on their wish list, and thought it would be good for user group members to develop a cross-organizational catalog for environmental justice data.

Participants also shared thoughts based on their experience with environmental justice data. Here are just a few things we learned:

  • Data limitations add complexity for researchers. They often want to look at trends on several different time levels (hourly, daily, weekly, seasonal, annual) at fine geographic resolutions. Sometimes, the size of the available data requires special expertise to make use of the information. Other times, the data is not available at the desired geographic resolution or publishing frequency.
  • It’s important to also understand the different dimensions of equity/disparity. Datasets such as food access, food assistance, home mortgage lending, property conditions, and birth outcomes can be used to frame the definition of equity that makes up the “justice” part of environmental justice. 
  • One or two measures of air quality is not enough. It’s important to have multiple measures, along with a solid understanding of the methodology of how data has been collected and modeled.
  • It’s important to consider how to communicate with residents and policymakers about environmental data. Community organizations can serve as a partner in this conversation with residents and policymakers, but they may need training in how to communicate using environmental data.

Next Steps

At the end of the meeting, we (pretty much) wouldn’t let anyone leave without completing our meeting satisfaction survey. From this feedback, we learned that we were able to create an environment where everyone felt welcome and was encouraged to participate. While we were reluctant to impose an agenda on the group at the first meeting, participants felt we could have provided more structure to guide the initial conversation. Overall, everyone was glad to be part of the conversation, and is looking forward to more meetings, events, and activities.

Our next steps for the environmental justice data user group include:

  • Ask users to prioritize the datasets and indicators included in the list through an online survey. We’ll also use this survey to solicit research questions. We’ll share a link to the survey through Twitter, and will also distribute it through our email list (be sure to sign-up on our Website).
  • After some of the most-valuable data is made available and research questions are identified, the Regional Data Center will host a “data dive.” Data dives are open events where participants with a variety of skills come together to develop insights through data. At this event, the work of the participants can be framed using the research questions identified in the survey.
  • We also will organize an educational workshop on the topic of how to communicate using environmental data with non-technical audiences.

We hope you can contribute to the data wish list, and are able to participate in future events of this user group. We’ll also launch several new user groups in the coming months, including one focused on property data. Stay tuned…