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Democratizing Data

Challenges and Opportunities for a More Accessible and Equitable Data Ecosystem

Image of Earth with computer code overlaid.
Courtesy of Pixabay

Researchers from NCEI and NOAA’s U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System Office (IOOS) recently published an editorial in the Frontiers in Climate journal focusing on data democratization, data access, and its future.

The concept of data democratization refers to the responsibility of data producers, consumers, and curators to make data easily accessible, fair, and usable. Due to a huge increase in the amount of environmental data being collected and made available, there is a growing need for data-driven decision-making to address global environmental challenges.

Democratization in the Era of Big Data

The editorial discusses how the phenomenon of datafication has led to the availability, demand, and use of environmental data at unprecedented scales, making it accessible even to citizen scientists. However, traditional consumers of environmental data also face challenges in this era of big data. The text encourages a new perspective called "data democratization" which introduces democratic principles into all aspects of data processes to make data more discoverable, accessible, equitable, and usable. 

The authors reviewed nine articles related to data democratization submitted by 43 authors from 27 different institutions or organizations. Most articles (58%) were written by authors affiliated with educational institutions, while the remaining authors were from commercial, governmental, or non-profit entities. The variety of institutional affiliations suggests that democratizing data presents challenges and opportunities for all data producers.

Themes, Challenges, and Principles

Three themes related to democratizing big environmental data emerged: maintaining a user focus in all aspects of the data lifecycle, making data usability a priority, and ensuring data veracity and equity. Data veracity is identified as a critical aspect of data democratization, and producers and curators are responsible for summarizing and communicating data quality issues to data users. A user-focused perspective is essential for democratized systems of data and requires informed data users.

The FAIR principles, which are data that meet principles of findability, accessibility, and reusability, are important for promoting data sharing and stewardship, but they only focus on the data provider and do not address normative issues and challenges associated with data sharing. Data democratization is a more comprehensive approach to making data discoverable, accessible, equitable, and usable. The CARE (collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, and ethics) principles, developed for and by indigenous communities, shift the focus from data providers to data consumers and promote data ecosystems that provide collective benefit, where data subjects have control over their data and are responsible for engaging respectfully with them.