In the aftermath of the 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia, in 2016, disaster managers were able to able to identify which communities were at greatest risk due to rapid access to data. They used the open source InaSAFE platform to access real-time hazard data and modeled population data mapped down to the village level. This was made possible by the collaborative use of “open” data — data that is free to use, open license, and in machine readable formats — between scientists, local and national governments and communities. By using open data, disaster managers were able to develop 20 disaster contingency plans with communities.
While earthquakes are not climate-driven, the damage they cause is similar to that of extreme weather, and this example demonstrates the importance of openly sharing data. Indeed, there are big payoffs for both civil society and governments that implement open data policies.
The idea of making data open is nothing new, but for many countries the challenge of doing so and the investment upfront means that much of the critical climate-related data that governments need remains locked away or in unusable formats. In some cases, the barrier is cultural or political: if sharing data and information has not been previously expected or enforced, there may be inertia to changing practices, a desire to withhold information as a source of power, or, in some cases, fear of accountability. Additionally, implementing open data practices requires staff time and technical capacity to set up the data infrastructure to publish online and ensure that it is updated, curated and easy to find.
The scale and urgency of the climate crisis requires coordination across sectors and collaboration with non-state actors and civil society. And it couldn’t be more critical: countries must demonstrate increased climate ambition while building trust — both domestically and internationally — through the transparent and accountable implementation of policies. By applying open data principles governments can strengthen cooperation, identify the data needs of different users, reduce redundancies in reporting to donors, build trust with their constituencies and enable innovation.
New research from WRI and the Open Data Charter reveals not only what some of the big payoffs are, but how to achieve them. Here are four of the many benefits countries can expect from implementing open data policies for addressing the climate emergency:
1. Improved Decision-making
Climate risks cut across government sectors — such as water, agriculture and energy — and solutions for one sector can have positive or negative consequences for another. Therefore, integrating data from across sectors is important for informing decisions and ensuring coherent and equitable responses.
When data is readily accessible, well-publicized and free of charge to use, it can be centralized in an easier-to-find location, which builds users’ awareness of what is available and reduces the burden of searching for and requesting data.
Take the example of the Climate Just tool, which combines open data from government and academic sources to visually display how heatwaves, flooding and other extreme climate events will impact disadvantaged and impoverished communities. Developed by a team of researchers and developers from civil society, academia and government in the United Kingdom, the tool was used by the New Economy — the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s policy and research arm — in its mapping system to assess the climate vulnerability of over 1,000 potential sites for development. By making data available to citizens and developers the aim was to help increase transparency and engagement in the planning process. The city’s Fire and Rescue Service also used the platforms to quantify exposure to flood risk, helping potentially inform response efforts in the future.
2. Strengthened Collaboration
Open data reinforces collaborative action by helping build an understanding of risks and priorities, as well as sustaining partnerships between actors with different sets of expertise. This is especially important for climate action given that the analyses needed — like downscaling global climate models or creating vulnerability assessments — can require complex techniques and specialized knowledge.
In the same way, open data makes it possible for those who have data analysis expertise to partner with those who represent the needs of affected communities. In Malabon City in the Philippines, for example, known for its frequent flooding, a coalition of international NGOs and civil society organizations from the Global South were able to use information from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) to adapt existing flood warning systems for the local context. With this information they were better able to identify the most at-risk areas and place flood risk maps at strategic locations in flood-prone neighborhoods. This also led to a shift in mindsets around disaster preparation and further community participation in developing evacuation plans.
3. Enhanced Monitoring
Open data can also play an important role in monitoring climate policies and programs. When relevant data and information is made accessible, citizens are better able to engage in formal and informal monitoring processes in an evidence-based manner.
By improving knowledge and data sharing across agencies and levels of government, open data can also strengthen governments’ monitoring and reporting frameworks under the Paris Agreement. In Costa Rica, for example, the development of the National System of Climate Change Metrics strengthened relationships and institutional arrangements between various data-producing government agencies to produce an open data platform on a wide range of climate change drivers, risks and responses — something that had reportedly been lacking due to the effort required to establish processes for consistent data sharing. The Climate Change Directorate expects this will help the country transition to new reporting procedures under the Paris Agreement’s enhanced transparency framework.
4. Improved modeling
Additionally, it’s important to note open data’s contribution to improved, accessible and accountable modeling. Modeling exercises underlie many climate change analyses — from estimating risks of climate-related hazards to generating credible projections of future greenhouse gas emissions. Data availability and transparency are critical to building context-specific models that are trusted and reliable and can be effectively used in national, sectoral and local planning. In Chile, the research institute CR2 has created climate simulations at the national and regional level using, in part, publicly accessible global and national datasets. These models, as well as other data made available through CR2’s platform, are widely used by Chilean stakeholders from all sectors, including the government.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, countries cannot afford to lose time through uncoordinated approaches. As these examples demonstrate, governments can spur collaboration and build trust with civil society, operate more efficiently, and ensure their climate actions are informed by best available data.