Data Pathways

This research is sensitized to the following research questions:

a)  How does data mediate the gap between local knowledge and scientific knowledge?

b)  How might we design for the local or particular within universalizing data frameworks?

This project designs an instrument for studying local data production in the context of scientific knowledge production. For this pilot, I explore community-based monitoring in Alaska as a site for understanding the local. Rather than defining the local, this project develops methods for understanding the ways in which local data and its curation mediates the public’s relationship to the environment and the ways in which localness is sustained as data makes it upstream to different data infrastructures.

For this pilot, stakeholders include researchers in the arctic data space at the Polar Data Summit in Boulder, Colorado as well as a researcher in restoration ecology in the Columbia River Basin. These researchers are concerned with questions of interoperability, reproducibility, and the usefulness and usability of data and knowledge, particularly in the domains of education and community-based activities. Because the question of usability is at the forefront of this initiative, the pilot seeks to understand more generally how scientists and managers utilize, create, and sometimes oppose the conditions for local data production.

Related Work

Management of natural resources is a fundamentally human activity (Berry 1977, 1987) and is a kind of design discipline (Simon 1996; Boland 2002) as it is founded on ideals about how systems should be managed. In the last decade, there has been an increasing call for designer ecosystems (Martin, 2014; Harris et al., 2006; Ross et al., 2015). Cantrell et al. (2017) propose a conceptual design for a “wildness creator”. In this design, “human curatorial interactions with organisms and abiotic environments are replaced with technological infrastructures utilizing responsive technologies (sensing and monitoring), robotics, and AI.” Their premise is that rather than interacting with ecologies through specific management objectives, which are defined by humans, “the wildness creator derives its specific priorities from an evolving computational intelligence derived from direct interactions with nonhuman species and environmental processes.” Additionally, Ross et al. (2015) argue for design to be more thoroughly incorporated into ecology. However, they do so by way of Herb Simon’s approach to design, or an instrumental problem-solving approach. This begs the question of if these authors view nature as something that can also be viewed as a “behaving system” similar to Simon’s characterization of humans (and ants) as behaving systems.

Herb Simon spent much of his career highlighting the tensions between the man-made world and the natural world, arguing for the science of the artificial to be taken seriously. Simon argued that rather than being at the mercy of the wild, as Wendell Berry argued, we are actually dependent upon artifacts of our own creation, which are impacted by the environments they operate within. Berry on the other hand, offers a counter to the view that progress is defined as constant growth and argues that the answer to finding the right problems is in the middle, between dependency on and exploitation of natural resources. Berry suggests that management is a fundamentally human activity contending that the main problem of human-natural relationships resides in the indivisibility and yet difference that characterizes the natural and the human – that there is something distinct about humanity. What is particular to humanity is its development and use of technology as the standard problem-solving approach. Rather than taking a technological deterministic or social deterministic view, he positions his view as the social and technical as one, which is essentially the human creation. For Berry, it is precisely the large-scale instrumentation of nature and the loss of technique or craft that has caused communities to become disconnected, unstable, and seen as ‘nowhere’.

As Simon is unable to speak to community engagement, this research relies on Berry for framing the problem space. Central to Berry’s design philosophy is that the lack of awareness of the interrelatedness of human and wild systems has been detrimental to our management and designs for the world. His argument rests on the assertation that rather than calculating areas worthy of preservation, humanity needs a holistic or ecological view of the world. Taking up Ross et al.’s (2015) call for incorporating more design into ecology as a point of departure, this research diverges from adopting Simon’s positivist epistemology. On the contrary, this study explores how this approach perpetuates the gap between local observations and scientific knowledge production.

Berry’s three questions provide a useful frame for thinking through a community-based project.

  1. What is here? Understanding what is currently happening with regard to data, science, and management.
  2. What will nature permit us to do? What is the history of the land and its people. How have policies changed the landscape? Understanding the past changes to the environment will help understand the constraints implicit in nature. How might understanding these relationships, historical practices, and financial constraints inform management? What nature permits us to do is a question that should be incorporated into management regimes as it takes on a more long-term perspective.
  3. What will nature help us do? How does knowledge of the land inform how fish can be managed? The villages along the Kuskokwim are largely separate and distinct; however, they have long used practices for knowing the fish and the rivers they inhabit. What are the goals for the future and how might nature help achieve those goals?

Though this research never answers the question of “what will nature help us do?”, the first two questions are designed toward the third question. The first prompt explores “what is here” by taking inventory of the data looking at the data collection, ownership, and connections in the Kuskokwim project as well as surveying polar data scientists on their roles and relationships to data. The second prompt explores “what will nature permit us to do?” by looking to the past to understand how it is visible in the present. As Donald Worster writes in Nature’s Economy (1977): “there is no escaping the persistence of the past. … Failing to accept that indebtedness to the past, or to realize how diverse and contradictory that past has been, we will not make much headway toward a deep understanding of our current ideas about nature” (p. 420).

The gray dots represent participants’ self-selection into one of the following groups. In a few cases, a participant self-selected into multiple groups (e.g. Collector: USFWS; User: Academic)

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