The Biden-Harris Administration should use collaborative mapping to address the climate crisis

9 min readJan 11, 2021

In the past months of run up to the election and through the multiple waves of Biden winning, I have pondered what role mapping can take in the Biden-Harris administration. My exploration has absorbed transition policy statements, dug into policy and programmatic work under the previous administration, gotten reacquainted with the breadth of innovative work in my own field of geographic technologies, and arrived at an unsurprising but important place.

The Biden-Harris Administration must use collaborative mapping to address the climate crisis.

The need for granular data at the community level is both what limits the accuracy of climate models and hinders collaboration across all levels of government and the private sector. Transparency and granularity are the key contributions of community data.

Climate change is our most existential global threat and seriously complicated challenge, closely intertwined with priorities of economic recovery and racial justice. Climate impacts regardless of boundaries or jurisdiction, and requires urgent inventive action at all scales and in all sectors. It’s widely recognized that the barriers to better use of information are now human and institutional, not technological. The incoming administration must use all of the best available modes of collaboration in response to transform the basis of our economy and lead globally.

Those models can be found across the field of mapping, in some stand out examples within government, but especially drawing on success from outside. This means openly sharing methodologies and people behind data processes and predictive models to fully leverage and accelerate research; adopt new engagement models to rapidly build and experiment together across organizational boundaries; leverage standards and approaches from industry; and work with the best science communicators to make impact with technology and research.

What is collaborative mapping and this community

Geographic technologies are central to tracking and projecting a changing climate, and identifying interventions and implementing response and societal change. Geographic technologies encompass earth observation, location services, data creation and sharing through standards, predictive modeling, application development, and map based storytelling.

These technologies help to understand everything from our local community to our planet. It should surprise no one that the field attracts some of the most wonderfully idealistic driven and helpful people around, who are not satisfied with creating technology for its own sake but truly seek to illuminate and solve real problems. From this field and community have emerged some of the most striking examples of global cooperation, which can be learned from and emulated.

I’m proud to have had a front row seat as OpenStreetMap has developed over 15 years from a ludicrous idea to openly mapping the world ala Wikipedia, to world winning global infrastructure. It’s now the central vibrant commons for everyone from the largest and smallest tech companies, to humanitarian work in communities around the world to map an area home to 1 billion. With the Mapbox Community team we’ve built hundreds of partnerships to collaboratively work on problems from the pandemic, to indigenous land rights to food security.

There’s a lot to draw inspiration from within the U.S. government. Over the course of two administrations and counting, the Opportunity Project has actively improved a unique model of collaboration that gets builders and experts from different sectors volunteering together in effective teams over the course of several months, in the structure of a sprint that delves into the nuances of an issue, its stakeholders, and data. The NOAA Big Data Program has taken the exponentially increasing volume of observation data, and pioneered partnerships with commercial cloud data providers to reduce barriers to data distribution and increase use, while making NOAA expertise more accessible. The Work Zone Data Exchange at the Department of Transportation has quickly developed and built buy-in for standards by leveraging open source development processes, resulting in a simple data standard based on widely used geographic data formats. NASA Marshall migrated their predictive model for hurricane intensity estimation to cloud based infrastructure, and completely share the code and documentation openly.

Around the world, governments and international organizations are placing collaborative geospatial technologies central to their work. At UN-OCHA, the Centre for Humanitarian Data is an established leader in open sharing and collaboration in data for humanitarian response, and with OCHA-Bucky has begun to openly release everything needed, including data preparation, to run their reusable predictive models for the COVID-19 pandemic. Geoscience Australia builds extensive open source tools for working with vast amounts of satellite imagery.

In our research paper based on the NGA incubator hosted on Polyplexus Reimagining Maps, we examined the current state of the geospatial technology problem space, looking at gaps and practices to borrow from in other fields. We identified the need to represent and manage fuzzy data, where individual user’s knowledge and the degree of uncertainty needs to be incorporated into application design and cartography. And especially focused on new models of map production based on the concept of “Instantaneous Remote Teams” borrowed from how collaboration assembles in online game spaces.

A framework for successful collaborative engagements

From these examples that inspire me, the question I have is how to design collaborations to meet new objectives. On reflection of the ingredients that make collaborative mapping work (and when it doesn’t), I’ve started to iterate on the following framework as a lens in which to evaluate and improve successful engagements.

Access to data and code, as well as and more importantly people and processes. This goes beyond the bare definition of open data or open source, which don’t necessarily result in the access necessary to make use of and reuse and repurpose.

Coordination includes both cooperation and competition. Define which part of the problem space will be managed collectively, where there is opportunity for greater cooperation, and where competition and focused teams push the limits. Coordination is an active process, which requires fantastic relationship management.

Resources are money, data and information, computing resources. As far as the federal government goes, the resource is often there but not allocated in the most effective ways.

Expertise of the technologies and problem domains. What makes this tricky is that it often runs counter to two way engagement. I’ve often said “everyone is an expert on their own lives”. How to create a space to harness both domain expertise and life expertise is the crux of the challenge.

Story is the animating narrative that brings people and organizations together to solve problems. This is not only the initial vision, but the ongoing story of success and failures in engagement.

Brief Policy Review

By most accounts, work on technology and innovation in the current administration continued without significant disruption, under the radar and a rare area of bipartisan consensus. While policies of openness and access have significantly suffered, and direct mention of climate change scrubbed, the policy documents I’ve looked at engage the topics seriously, have worked relatively fast, demonstrate continuity, and provide structures to build upon, but gaps highlight where the Biden-Harris administration needs to bring renewed focus.

The 2019 National Plan for Civil Earth Observations primarily produced by the U.S. Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is the mandated follow up to the 2014 plan. There is a goal set on availability and access, but notably missing is a strong statement of commitment to open access. There’s emphasis on research and improved AI capabilities with earth observation data, but without a recognition of the open access to software libraries and vibrant community that has supported the rapid improvements in industry. Several goals look at strengthening coordination and engagement across the federal enterprise, and improving the impact of earth observation to actually answer users’ questions, yet fail to recognize successful federal government models for engagement and impact like the Opportunity Project and other forums that enable collaborative experimentation, with interaction among people representing federal agencies, researchers and private sector. Standards and interoperability sections surprised me by lack of recognition to successful programs like NOAA Big Data. The need to articulate the value of earth observation is recognized, but the combination of highly specialized technical field and government communications caution has let to few effective stories.

The 2018 Whole-Community Hurricane Information Flows Workshop organized by the White House focused on improved coordination in disaster response and information sharing, to better utilize data in crisis. The conclusion struck a familiar refrain.

“advances in mobile, cloud-computing, and GIS technologies are generating new possibilities for better information sharing across sector boundaries and new tools that integrate that information .. the most important barriers to achieving this vision are institutional, bureaucratic, and human, rather than technical.”

Central to response to the climate crisis must be a collaborative action across federal agencies, and aligned with state and local government, companies, and researchers, to rapidly build the simple standards, processes and infrastructure to collect, standardize, distribute and visualize this data.

The 2020 Earth System Predictability Research and Development Strategic Framework and Roadmap also emphasizes collaboration across government departments, and external partnerships across disciplines to improve predictions and accelerate progress towards impact.

The Fourth Open Government National Action Plan for the USA is notable and laudatory for existing at all in the current administration. Unsurprisingly it does not build on the commitment to Open Mapping in the 3rd OGP NAP, which I was proud to help facilitate during my time as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2015.

Engaging communities to use open mapping platforms ensures the widest possible benefit of geographic data and improved public services for individuals and communities using that data. The Administration will expand interagency collaboration and coordination with the open mapping community to promote the use of open mapping data in both domestic and international application.

Congress passed the National Geospatial Data Act in 2018, codifying responsibility for coordination and interoperability on geospatial data with the Federal Geographic Data Committee. Implementation has only taken initial steps since then, and there seems to be opportunity to incorporate new modes of collaboration and focus areas into this work.

Where to use collaborative mapping

The transition priority statement on climate emphasizes building a sustainable economy. This focus tracks where I think there’s the most immediate opportunity for a collaborative mapping approach. The scope and geographic extent of data is enormous — just to scratch the surface from the projected changes in climate, threat of flooding of individual houses, the location of every solar panel, the plans for building green infrastructure and financial investment at a local level, and the demand for green jobs and training opportunities.

We’re all well familiar with historic data tracking CO2 and temperature rise and the increase in severe weather, the models and visualizations projecting climate change in medium and long term, and potential impact on infrastructure like FloodFactor. There’s certainly a need to better aggregate, assess and comprehensively visualize at the federal level these base metrics and risks of climate change. As a best practice, that would mean well documented and reproducible data flows and open source models.

Just and even more important is comprehensive data and insights on the response. We know the problem — but what is being done, what can be expanded, and what’s working? A first step is a nationwide dashboard of granular reusable data for the climate crisis and sustainable economy. Where precisely are all residential, commercial & industrial solar installations and what is their output right now? Where are the most optimal places for more? How many open job positions at a county level for solar installation and wind farm maintenance? Climate resilience requires unprecedented coordination, leaving no entity or part of the country behind means not only simply setting up a challenge for working with climate data, but essentially a culture shift means not only setting up a challenge how we work with science, data and map making. This particularly means partnering with cities and states through groups like C40 Cities, which have a much more direct understanding of how climate change is impacting people’s everyday lives, and have clear ideas of where investment is needed.

And this is only scraping the surface of existing and potential data and techniques for one part of the response. We need the same level of understanding of where we are and where we’re going for transport and transit, buildings, agriculture and the environment. Along with the 2009 Recovery Act, the White House launched to show how, when & where money was spent. This level of transparency and communications will be essential to explain the direct benefit of investing in the sustainable economy. The coronavirus relief package that just passed includes R&D funding for renewable energy and carbon capture, and extends tax incentives for sustainable infrastructure. Hopefully this is just the start of federal investment, and understanding and helping shape the investments is a vital need that collaborative mapping can help engage. And beyond federal investment, state, local, foundations, and private sector are all focused on building this new economy. Collaborating on this data sounds daunting but it’s not as daunting as building the sustainable economy itself.




Mapper. Coder. Earth Genome. OpenStreetMap Foundation. HOT. former Mapbox / Presidential Innovation Fellow. Views are my own.