21.12.2023 | Authors: Soledad Magnone, Raymundo Vásquez Ruiz, Fer Aguirre, Charles Suggs and Gibran Mena
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How can data and digital tools facilitate materialising socio-environmental solutions? Which communication tactics can shift power towards historically silenced groups? In this article we take note of some of the main ideas from conversations with international collaborators dedicated to these topics. These regard ways to harness the power of data, learning analytics and storytelling to address climate justice. Finally, we introspect on these topics connected to narratives misrepresenting or silencing front-line defenders and leveraging stories from women, LGBTQIA+ and indigenous communities.
The text is structured as a Critical Digital Education practice for sustainable futures to be used or remixed under Creative Commons 4.0 licenses. This is also a summary of key conversations at the MozFest 2023 Tech & Biodiversity, from the session “Building Networks to Report on Climate Justice”.
A Water emergency, Artificial Intelligence and techno solutionism
Reports from World Water Day (22 March) foregrounded that a quarter of the world’s population lack access to drinkable water. This crisis reinforces social injustices, for instance, women are deprived of other activities by being responsible for collecting water and within precarious work conditions. Insufficient access to clean water affects 1 in 4 children from around the world at a fundamental stage in life. The water demand will continue to challenge the available sources in a context of major droughts and water consumption by different industries. Such was the case of the recent drinking water crisis in Uruguay, triggered by a great drought, lack of infrastructure maintenance and high consumption of water by agriculture, cellulose and Google.
How can we use digital tools such as Artificial Intelligence to optimize our water consumption? Spherical studio in the United States build modeling tools for communities to decide independently, for instance, to solve the problem that 80% of Los Angeles’ rainfall water is lost. Notwithstanding, it is relevant to nuance the possibilities of solutions such as AI as an overarching narrative to solve the climate crisis. This means overly investing in technologies, especially from the Global North, instead of more comprehensive and context-sensitive strategies that address educational, social and economic structural issues. Moreover, myopic technological solutions have been often related with data or knowledge extractivism from academics. Researchers often take time, labour and expertise from local, most affected and disadvantaged communities, and nothing comes back. This experience has been noted in the US’ Appalachia, which resulted in some local groups not engaging with academic research because of lack of trust.
Collective knowledge and action research
Digital technologies are highly connected as a cause and consequence of our climate crisis, yet these discussions are often ignored. Education is a fundamental aspect to build comprehensive and sustainable solutions. However, educational systems globally have sustained dominant gaps in digital education that reinforce social injustices in the digital age. “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?” enquires Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, highlighting ‘divisions of learning’ relating knowledge with power.
Digital education refers to teaching with and about digital technologies, yet approaches to unpack how the digital ecosystem affects societies and our environment has been widely sidelined. A quality digital education mitigates these gaps that have been rendered by a tunnel vision from fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. To address this gap, JAAKLAC researches and advocates for a Critical Digital Education. This is an education in and for the dialogue to foster a critical consciousness, human rights and taking action to change reality. The CDE practices bring us together to Share, Learn and Do! solutions for the common good.
Share: Data and storytelling to stop the snake eating its own tail.
The following cases represent examples to address the climate crisis from activists, journalists and researchers:
“Evidencing how the industry is eating its own tail” by Gibran Mena: the use of satellite images to report Paraná’s deforestation due to the soy and cattle industry. Data Crítica reported on the satellite data while Hina media outlet did ground-reporting from Paraguay. This collaboration showcased that the worst drought of the Paraná even made it impossible for the soy and cattle businesses to transport their own goods.
“Lowering costs, time and risks” by Charles Suggs: the possibilities of sensors and other automated equipment to research with communities in the Appalachia in the United States dealing with polluted water and air. The sensors used by Full Steamlabs tracked pressure and humidity bluetooth and Raspberry Pi with connectivity. This was a key component to take tasks that entailed walking alongside the creek to test, trespassing private property and time consuming.
“Optimising data storytelling” by Fer Aguirre: walked us through a case of freedom of public information request and campaign to foreground risky levels of water contamination in Mexico. Data Critica created a tool to download a poster with the level of water of each district to be printed and displayed in public spaces. This was particularly effective as many of the affected locations have connectivity issues and a digital storytelling would not have been effective.
Learn: Ask yourself, with a peer or in groups:
What problems is your community facing? Which are the groups (gender, race, etc.) that are most affected by these problems? Which voices/ stories are overlooked?
Have you used similar techniques to the three examples we provided? How did that go? What problems in your communities or territories do you think this can help with?
Any successes where you learned something important? What was it you learned? Any challenges or failed efforts that taught you something important?
Having all of this in consideration, What kind of solutions could your community bring to these issues?
Ideas to further nurture discussions and pathways towards hope
Narratives of hope open up a number of avenues. Firstly, by highlighting success stories, such as the reduction of the ozone hole after a very long campaign to reduce the use of some chemicals. Secondly, positive results in environmental campaigning can also be expressed in terms of organisation and processes, not exclusively in achieving policy change: collective action and reporting on these issues is already a great victory. There is also a need for the currently ignored stories about the natural technologies, indigenous groups and rural communities that sustain our environment. Forests naturally recharge water reservoirs due to the permeability of the soil. The protection of forests depends primarily on indigenous and rural peoples. These voices have organised and advocated for the environment through community radio and social media, such as Futuros Indigenas.
Solutions are not unique. Creativity and finding sustainable ways forward are important, for which open and low-cost technology represents an opportunity. For example, the use of R and Python (open source programming languages) to analyse the misinformation around the protection of the Venezuelan and Colombian Amazon during the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26). It is also important to realise that climate justice requires technology systems that do not rely on high-speed connectivity and that power simple, repairable devices. Another success story has been in relation to the use of GitHub. The platform for openly sharing programming code has been used in China to disseminate information otherwise censored by the government. The Chinese authorities had to lift the block on GitHub as many companies in the country rely on this repository.
Do! And the best part?
Online communities and global events are key to spreading and amplifying the environmental movement. This allows for synergies with groups from different geographies and disciplines, such as journalism, science, education and technology. It is essential to collaborate open to unexpected partnerships, so that more people tell their own stories and are champions, rather than bombarded with issues.
So this article is a starting point for showcasing ideas and encouraging broader engagement on issues at the intersection of environmentalism, digital technologies, advocacy and hope. We want to amplify these through collaborative blogs and podcasts.
We are especially looking for stories of voices often excluded because of gender, race, ethnicity, class, geography and disability. Also cases where the strategy connects environmental problems with issues such as electricity, food, health and transport.
Contact jallalla [at] jaaklac [dot] org and take part!