Panel Paper: When Open Data Encounter Digital Exclusion: Assessing the Impacts on Environmental Equity

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Lobby Level, Director's Row E (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jiaqi Liang, University of Illinois, Chicago and Fengxiu Zhang, Arizona State University

Environmental justice has been one of the most critical concerns in the public policy scholarship and practice. In light of the environmental justice concerns, governments at different levels have engaged in a variety of policy and programmatic responses to ensure inclusion of all population groups in the “development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (U.S. EPA 2004, p. 2). Yet such endeavors show limited effectiveness (Dull and Wernstedt 2010; Konisky 2009, 2015; Liang 2016; Ong 2012). In this study, we argue that the implementation of environmental justice policies and the effectiveness thereof need to take into account the broader contexts in which the target populations are embedded.

A notable change in the broader environmental context is the increased digitalization of government’s information and services. One of the most recent developments is the open data initiatives that aim at making certain types of government datasets publicly accessible via internet (Bertot et al. 2014; Janssen et al. 2012). Government open data portals are widely lauded for promoting public access to government’s data, facilitating citizen-crowdsourcing and participation, and empowering citizens to engage in government’s actions and exercise voice in policymaking (Harrison et al. 2012; Kassens-Noor 2018; Sieber and Johnson 2015). In the contexts of environmental justice, the emergence of relevant open data portals is similarly expected to advance equity through promoting transparency, civic engagement, and informed policymaking. Environmental justice scholars have long recognized the political, social, cultural, and economic disadvantages of particular subpopulations. However, extant scholarship has paid scarce attention to how those preexisting disadvantages map to target populations’ digital disadvantages and what are the related implications for policy implementation under the backdrop of the emerging open data initiatives.

This study aims to incorporate the broader contexts of the communities of environmental justice concern into the examination of government’s programmatic outputs. Drawing from the literature on environmental justice, open data, and digital exclusion, we hypothesize that (1) the adoption of relevant open data portals strengthens the governments’ policy implementation for vulnerable communities, and (2) the digital exclusion confronting the communities of environmental justice concern weakens the aforementioned effect of open data portals.

The empirical analysis focuses on the implementation of the Clean Air Act, wherein the outcome variable is measured by the aggregated number of inspections and civil administrative enforcement actions in a given block group. The study draws on the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Progress Reports to measure digital exclusion and the authors’ coding of a selected sample of local governments’ open data portals to measure the presence of open data initiatives linking environmental-demographic-socioeconomic information. The data will be merged with the U.S. EPA’s Integrated Data for Enforcement Analysis and Facility Registry Service databases, Census Bureau’s 2000 and 2010 Census, and American Community Survey 5-year estimates to control for variations in the block-group-level demographic, socioeconomic, and environmental factors. The study contributes to the interdisciplinary scholarship by exploring how government’s policy and program design affect policy implementation while considering the broader socioeconomic and digital contexts of the target populations.