Circumventing silos in open hardware to create opportunities for interconnection, shared agendas, and collective resources
Ashley Schuett (International Science and Technology Policy Graduate Student, George Washington University), Juan Pedro Maestre (Research Associate and Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin), and Katie Hoeberling (Director of Policy Initiatives, Open Environmental Data Project)
Actors seeking to use open hardware and low cost tools for environmental data collection often face a paralysis of choice when entering the DIY space. Even within the niche of environmental monitoring and open hardware, there are many options and resources spread across numerous platforms and communities. Developers also face the challenge of building tools that meet diverse needs and avoiding duplicating or competing with existing similar technologies. NGOs, government agencies, researchers, and developers often work in relative isolation, holding different pieces of information and capabilities that could support would-be users or developers in selecting tools and accessing information or resources to enable quality assurance and maintenance. Creating decentralized interconnection between these siloed sectors can strengthen collaboration, promote understanding of who holds what information and resources, avoid duplicative effort, and create shared solutions. Government, umbrella and intermediary organizations, and philanthropy, in addition to communities and developers, all have a role to play in this connection-building.
Mounting evidence on the benefits of open hardware and low-cost tools has driven growing enthusiasm in government for their use. The European Commission recently concluded that policies prioritizing open source software and hardware in innovation led to economic benefits four times the cost of implementing them. In the U.S., government efforts have created open resources to support the public in making informed decisions about low-cost tools and the data they collect. The EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox, for example, shares information on the performance and maintenance of air quality sensor monitoring systems. Another example is the USDA’s Ag Data Commons, which catalogs and stores open data for agricultural research communities. Though these platforms are not restricted to open tools, they have demonstrated the value of broad access to low-cost tools and environmental data.
Still, while governments often hold major opportunities and pathways to scale, they tend to be segmented out of active open hardware and environmental monitoring communities, mostly because of a lack of structural connections between them. Bringing all of them into conversation together could help connect the needs of communities, researchers, and developers with capacities and resources held by public agencies. To this end, the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) recently held a series of policy workshops with open hardware developers and government representatives to collaboratively set an agenda for accelerating the integration of these tools in international development and innovation policy. While communities like GOSH should continue to exist and operate outside the confines of government oversight, creating spaces like GOSH for developers and researchers to convene with governments would allow different actors to voice their needs and capacities, align goals, and build connections.
Intermediary organizations can be a critical part of maintaining decentralization, facilitating conversation, and translating lessons into feasible recommendations. Groups and organizations like the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) and the Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP), who coordinated this blog series, can take on this role, keeping a bird’s-eye view of the lifecycle of these tools and creating open and equitable discussion spaces. The OEDP’s Brain Trusts initiative, for example, “creates curated collisions amongst people that may be working on similar issues from different perspectives or that when paired together could create new sparks for the space of environmental governance.” Likewise, STIP’s recent panel on open data brought together public, private, and non-profit sector actors to discuss what infrastructure, policy, and partnerships could make open data a truly public good.
Relatedly, there is also an expanded role for philanthropy to rethink funding for scale rather than supporting one off projects. Funding can help shape open ecosystems by supporting interconnected projects and an integrated approach to data, hardware, and infrastructure development, rather than prioritizing one over the other. An exciting recent example of this can be seen in the National Science Foundation’s FAIROS RCN grants, which are designed to “foster catalytic improvements in scientific communities focusing on the FAIR guiding principles and Open Science best practices,” and regularly bring project teams together to share knowledge. (FAIR stands for Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reusability.) As a recent recipient of one of these awards (in partnership with Notre Dame and the HDF Group), OEDP’s SEEKCommons project hopes to create more opportunities for researchers to connect with policymakers and community organizations, and to train the next generation of open environmental data intermediaries. Additionally, investment strategies should incentivize building on and integrating with existing infrastructure, rather than developing completely new or duplicative platforms. Funding could also allow for more flexibility in end-products, allowing them to morph and fit with evolving needs on the part of both governments and communities.
There is no shortage of ideas, resources, or capacities to create and use open hardware and low-cost tools in environmental monitoring. What is needed now are more opportunities for people to break out of their siloes; to share their deep institutional and sectoral knowledge with each other. Decentralized but strongly collaborative spaces can make these connections happen, drive actionable agendas forward, and build collective resources.