Policymakers need data to make informed decisions. Local governments need data to justify policies like bans on single-use plastics. Federal agencies need information to set the conservation guidelines that protect endangered species. Data are also required to report on progress towards international policy targets, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But worldwide, we don’t have enough data to understand the current state of our environment, or effectively evaluate the impact of interventions. In 2018, Washington, DC banned plastic drinking straws while citing evidence that 3,500 straws were picked up during Potomac Watershed and Earth Day cleanup campaigns. But raw data are not openly available to evaluate the effectiveness of this ban or understand the value of banning straws over other single-use plastics. A federal review across air, water, land, built, and sociodemographic environments found both general data gaps and spatial and temporal bias across all domains. Internationally, we lack enough information to track global progress against 68% of the 93 environmental Sustainable Development Goals.
Some additional data exist but are not yet open and Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR). To fill data gaps, we can open and remediate existing data, while using standards to collect new data through innovative methodologies that augment traditional reporting. Citizen science is one promising approach where members of the public voluntarily contribute to scientific research. By collecting information on scales and resolutions not achievable through professional activities alone, citizen science can help fill data gaps while engaging and educating public volunteers. A wealth of citizen science data already exists, though not all of it is open or FAIR. In addition, innovations in technology- like mobile applications (apps) and low-cost sensors for data collection, or data integration, visualization, and analysis tools- can support new data collection activities.
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