The need for open technology standards for environmental monitoring

Journal of Open HW
7 min readNov 30, 2022
Image from page 1076 of “Hardware merchandising August-October 1912”. From Internet Archive Book Images

Shannon Dosemagen (Open Environmental Data Project) and Luis Felipe Murillo (University of Notre Dame)

Environmental monitoring has long been a proving ground for new implementations of open technologies. While there is indisputable value in creative problem-solving through technical collaboration — to help us adapt, change, and update legacy systems — far too little attention has been dedicated to the infrastructure that is necessary for sustaining open projects. Research and development programs in the US designed to “promote innovation” have an unwarranted emphasis on technical problem-solving. It is in this problem space that open technology communities have responded creatively by taking the problem of standardization as a community-making tactic. It is in this space as well that scientific instrumentation can be improved through community-driven assessment.

Standards are hard-won and crucial, but not for the reasons one would suspect. They are often imagined as stable contracts that bring into compliance large numbers of companies, scientists, and engineers. But they represent, rather, the end product of collective assessment, documentation, and deliberation, bringing into view the challenges of mobilizing heterogeneous engineering networks into interoperable technical objects (Law 1987). By looking at the variety of open standardization efforts, we find an overlooked pattern: open standards have served historically as community-making devices, bringing experts together to collaborate on a common set of problems. The domains where we perceive a lack of standards, we always find a lack of community. And, where we identify the lack of community, we also find anti-patterns of neoliberal science, such as 1) overlapping and redundant research projects (due to the lack of data sharing); 2) waste of resources on tools that cannot be improved (due to the closeness of research instruments); 3) lack of expertise in Free and Open Source software tools (given the prevalence of proprietary scientific libraries in certain domains of scientific practice). While there is much work being done in the past two decades to counter the negative effects of the commercialization of the sciences, there is also strong evidence pointing to the worsening of the situation with the precarity of work in academia.

Standards involve documentation that is supposed to regulate, de jure, dispersed, and disparate technical practices and objects. The creation of standards involves a theater of consensus-building and expert dispute, which are objects of study in themselves for science and technology scholars (Busch 2011; Russell 2014). It is a true feat of collective action and collaborative work around something that is meant to be common. To use the concept of Thomas Hughes, “technical styles” vary wildly and standards are meant to find commonalities that need to be negotiated across contexts. In this space of heated corporate interest, power relations are always present to “instrumentalize” standards in myriad ways: there are standards that are imposed; standards that are used for market reserve; standards that are meant to keep newcomers from entering certain domains guarded by corporations. There are also open standards that have a different motivation: they are, at once, the documentation of “better practices” and the effort to make visible the need for further collaboration in a technical domain (Bonvoisin et al 2020). This is the space in which we inhabit as practitioners and contributors: it is our position that standards can help us address these three issues across three interrelated domains of research practice with open technologies.

Open standards efforts can be found throughout the history of computing. In “Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law,” Larry Rosen has discussed the importance of “open standards” on the web to create shared conditions for the functioning of a network of people. Fast forwarding a decade and a half of Free and Open Source activism, the Open Source Initiative became a de facto standardization authority for free and open source licenses, having a huge impact on the community, despite, of course, their over-emphasis on the commercial benefits of open technologies. It is well understood in the community that they went too far: open technologies are now invisible yet they run everywhere because of hard-working maintainers that keep infrastructures running on Free and Open Source technologies.

In Open Hardware, standardization has been mostly an independent effort of organized communities of practitioners. In the Euroamerican context, the Open Source Hardware Association developed a certification program for Open Hardware projects that was meant to raise awareness about the features of product and process that fall into the scope of “openness” for hardware. As described by Jeremy Bonvoisin (2020) another key standardization effort (DIN SPEC 3105) was conducted in the context of the German standardization body for establishing a strong basis for defining the scope of what makes a product an “Open Source Hardware” product. Combined, these initiatives demonstrate the importance of standards for building and protecting a technical and scientific commons.

In Open Data, a considerable number of efforts have been dedicated to establishing “better practices” for the distribution of data that is more usable (both by humans and machines). Metadata standards (such as the Climate Forecasting Metadata standard for environmental scientists) have proven to be extremely important for facilitating contact and exchange between research projects. In this debate, the FAIR guidelines (Wilkinson et al 2016) have been purported as an aspirational standard for open data management. Their strong emphasis on machine-actionability and expert domain debates led to the creation of the CARE manifesto that emphasizes the flipside of data standardization by highlighting the importance of indigenous and community sovereignty in the debate about data governance (Caroll et al 2020).

The barriers to the uptake of open hardware in environmental monitoring may seem insurmountable: not only is procurement difficult, but expertise is often hard to find and capacity is hard to build in the context of widespread commercialization of the sciences. We have already made some progress, yet not enough to gain the visibility that other open initiatives have in the broader context of Open Science. With the allocation of resources and capacity, there are straightforward ways to address the standardization issues of open instrumentation for environmental monitoring. In the US, with attention to addressing climate change and environmental inequities through initiatives such as Justice40 and legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act, carving out a space for the inclusion of open hardware would be in the interest of an environmental monitoring space that is focused on the advancement of collective agendas towards community and environmental health. To accomplish this, we suggest the following strategies:

  • Co-design a common space for the generative “un-siloing” for researchers, open hardware developers, and environmental regulatory authorities. The first aim of this common space should be to create a shared agenda with actionable objectives leading toward concrete goals in the near, medium, and long term.
  • Co-create a certification system for open environmental monitoring hardware that can operate within regulatory systems of environmental governance. Such a system should identify where and how open hardware tools and the resulting data can be used.
  • Solve the documentation dilemma with standardization efforts for open instrumentation in which updates and new iterations can be easily followed and understood. A collective effort towards providing a repo of open tools, their use and role in environmental monitoring, and where and how data from these tools can constructively be used in environmental governance and management is a must.
  • Ensure a percentage of research funds are allocated to the maintenance of open scientific technology projects. To help senior scientists support open technologies, point them to the discussion on the return on investment in open hardware.
  • Common resources and community-building efforts should focus on infrastructure across the open ecosystem, not just a singular tool. While open hardware involves the design and implementation of the material part of environmental monitoring, it is part of a much broader ecosystem of open technologies that involve software, data, and analytic tools. Funding agendas many times segregate infrastructural components, and domain experts focus on their piece of the infrastructure.
  • Commercialization of the sciences tends to undermine our ability to achieve cohesive, inclusive, and usable environmental governance structures. Looking to open source communities for better practices for research collaboration may allow for common, centralized efforts and agendas to exist while maintaining the autonomy of decentralized projects and organizations.

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Busch, L. 2011. Standards: Recipes for Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Journal of Open HW

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.