By Kuo Hung-yi | Edit by Open Culture Foundation

Taiwan was ranked as the high quality Open Data government in 2015 and 2016 by “Global Open Data Index". However, since than, there is no further development and many open data sets are still lack of function. This October, Taiwan National Development Council suddenly announced the draft of “Open Data Act" is under discussion. Before we finally step into next stage, let us review what is really going on about Open Data in Taiwan in historical case and environmental case.

What problems can we solve by “obtaining information”? Or what role does it play in human life? In addition to simply meeting the human need to gain knowledge, access to information is helpful for our judgment in decision-making, good for understanding specific things, and conducive to reduce human fear in the face of the unknown. 

Intelligent humans can keep away from disasters by learning astronomy, meteorology, and geographical environment, and improve hunting techniques, food collection and even medical behavior by comprehending animal and plant ecology. Intelligent humans develop various communication methods to disseminate information or knowledge, learn abstract thinking, and establish complex systems of knowledge and culture, which has created the world of mankind today.

With the rise of modern democracies, people began to reinforce supervision and checks and balances on state action by requiring government to disclose information and provide public participation procedures. Its earliest history can be traced back to Sweden in 1766. Government information disclosure helps people’s behavioral decision-making in large and small affairs in their daily lives. But it was only after the mid to late 20th century that it really caught the attention of all countries.

In the Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948, the United Nations affirmed that freedom of information was a basic human right, and many countries started to protect the right of its people to obtain information by law. 

In response to the particularity of environmental issues, international community established specific access rights to environmental information (or the Environmental Right to Know), such as the 1992 Rio Declaration and the 1998 Aarhus Convention. The acquisition of environmental information will help people respond to and prevent various natural disasters or man-made accidents, and is helpful for disaster relief in progress and information collection for claiming damages afterwards. It also helps people supervise the government, and even restrict emissions from polluters. 

Regarding the government’s environmental behavioral decision-making, such as Environmental Impact Assessment (hereinafter referred to as EIA) procedures, emission permit issuance, etc., information disclosure is the most fundamental prerequisite for people’s participation in decision-making process. Despite relevant information is made public, there is a great information gap between the government, development units and the public.

When Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, the authorities in Moscow delayed and hid the truth from the local residents. Eventually the accident led to tremendous death and cancer diagnosis. (From Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash)

The last mile before the EIA process: visualization of monitoring data to eliminate information gap

In the process of EIA, the review committees collect various environmental information, including information of life, nature, society, economy and culture, and use the information to understand the current conditions of the environment. They identify possible problems from the current situation of the environment, then further assess the possible impact of various government policies, developments and actions on the current state of the environment, and propose appropriate management plans that demand follow-up actions and implementation. 

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (hereinafter referred to as the EIA Act), environmental impact assessment task including such procedures as phase Ⅰ and phase Ⅱ environmental impact assessments, reviews and follow-up evaluations. As long as the government policy or development behavior requires an EIA, the development unit must produce an environmental impact statement and an environmental impact assessment report in the phase Ⅰ and phase Ⅱ environmental impact assessments. The subject matter is nothing more than a record of the purpose and content of the development, the investigation of current environmental conditions, the possible impact of development activities on the environment, and related mitigation, response measures and environmental management plans. 

When the development unit conducts an investigation of current environmental conditions, it should give priority to the latest information published by the government agencies or representative data of long-term investigation accumulated by other units. If the information is not utilized, field survey should be conducted.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are carried out to assess the environmental consequences of development projects by preparing environmental information and management plans and involving civic participation and stakeholder engagement in the process. (Data from Environmental Protection Administration Taiwan. Made by Perry Wu.)

Concerning the current environmental conditions (including physics and chemistry, ecology, landscape and recreation, social economy, transportation, culture and environmental sanitation, etc.), the development unit should collect the latest relevant information from the competent authorities such as the Environmental Protection Administration of the Executive Yuan (hereinafter referred to as the EPA), the Ministry of the Interior, the Water Resources Agency or the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Most of the relevant materials can be downloaded from the public websites.

Regarding environmental monitoring data and related information, the EPA has set up an Environmental Resource Information Open Platform and an Environmental Resource Database; as for astronomical meteorology, the Central Weather Bureau has an Open Weather Data platform; local governments at all levels have “Statistics Search” systems for social economy (e.g. Taipei City Website) and the like, available for public download and utilization. 

However, these materials are scattered among the competent authorities and rely on the development units to collect and organize it when making environmental impact statements or assessment reports. The completed written documents will be published by the EPA in the EIA Inquiry System for public download. And a physical copy will be displayed in the neighborhood office where the development activities are located. In this way, it is actually more difficult to maintain the latest information about current environmental conditions provided by the written documents during the review process. 

Besides, there are potential doubts that, in the process of making relevant documents, the development unit may selectively cite or misquote information in order to successfully pass the EIA. In practice, the EIA review committees often spend part of their time dealing with errors regarding the citation of information. For the general public, it is even more difficult to expect that they have the ability and time to judge whether the content of the documents is correct. In this regard, if we can strengthen the immediacy, correctness and legibility of the citation of environmental data, and specifically present the current situation of the location of the development activity, it will help to improve the efficiency of the EIA and the general public’s trust in the EIA mechanism.

At present, the EPA is trying to construct an “i-Environment Information Network” in a more legible way, such as by means of visualization and localization, and using the language that general public can understand. It will help the local residents to understand the current state of their living environment immediately. Such effort may be applied to the EIA process to establish an information platform for the current environmental conditions, and to present through visualization and localization the various public relevant information and data which must be referred to in the EIA process. If the development unit has other local data of its own investigation or monitoring, it can also be integrated into the information platform to update the information about current state of the environment and make the information much closer to the truth.

The success of this idea depends on all government agencies to unify various use formats of monitoring raw data and graphics, as well as the systematic construction of the information platform itself. This can be done through actual investigation of current environmental conditions, continuous tracing and monitoring, and the feedback to the information platform by the development unit. And it will let the general public know about the government and the development unit’s grasp of the current situation of the environment. Through data management methods, we can eliminate the information gap between the government, development units and the public, and open a communication space for their mutual trust and dialogue.

The government should offer visualization of environmental monitoring data to help eliminate the information gap between the general public and the government and experts so local residents can understand the current state of environmental situation. Made by Perry Wu.

The last mile after the EIA process: integrating and representing monitoring data from the perspective of user experience

Take the Central Taiwan Science Park as an example. The development of science parks has always been an environmental issue of concern to the public. In the face of science parks, the biggest environmental concerns of local residents are the environmental pollution risks hidden behind high technology and the competition for resources which is energy-intensive and water-consuming, and in the past, these are also the cause of public resistance to the development of science parks.

The environmental pollution risks of high-tech industries have caused hidden health concerns for local residents.(Provided by Environmental Justice Foundation. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International and later version.)

In the history of the development of the Central Taiwan Science Park (CTSP), the most noticeable thing is the development plan of the Qixing Farm of Houli District  in the third phase of the CTSP which took 12 years to be approved. In 2005, due to insufficient land supply in the first and second phases of the CTSP, the National Science Council (now the Ministry of Science and Technology) at the time launched a land development plan for the third phase of CTSP in Houli District. The land development plan passed the EIA process for the first time in 2006, but the EIA under-evaluated the waste water discharge, the impact on farmers’ irrigation water, and health risk assessment, hence it was revoked by the administrative court. This was the first case in Taiwan that EIA conclusions were revoked by the judicial authority.

The revocation of the EIA conclusion caused tension between the Executive Yuan and the administrative court. The EPA even purchased media advertisement to criticize the administrative court’s decision. On the other hand, the Executive Yuan allowed the manufacturers stationed in the science park to carry on with their operations while continuing the environmental impact assessment. This made the precautionary principle of the EIA system useless.

In 2010, the case passed the EIA review again. Local residents continue to question the waste water discharge in the park, the health risks of chemical substances, and the impact on their irrigation water. They filed a lawsuit for the second time to demand a legal remedy. The EPA decided by itself that the development plan should enter the second stage of the EIA process. The CTSP Bureau and local farmers reached a settlement in the lawsuit, so the petition and protest stopped temporarily.

Other than that, in 2015, the CTSP also faced questioning from civic organizations in the EIA process of the Dadu Mountain expansion case in Taichung Science Park. Their main concerns included the health risks of the use of chemical substances in the park, waste disposal, and the condition of water and electricity consumption.

The Central Taiwan Science Park Bureau has a “Central Taiwan Science Park Integrated Environmental Information Network” to disclose the environmental monitoring and environmental impact assessment documents and other relevant information of the park.

However, browsing the relevant webpages reveals that the bureau only provides the original monitoring data of the entire park. Through such stone-cold data, the general public cannot understand whether they are exposed to specific environmental risks. From the viewpoints of the local residents, there are a few issues regarding the current information disclosure methods:

  1. Information disclosure cannot present the current conditions of the science park environment: the website content only provides some monitoring data such as that of the air, water quality and noise in the park. However, people are also concerned about the following environmental issues: information about the park and various manufacturers’ utilization of energy, land and water resources, soil pollution, waste disposal, management of toxic chemicals in the park, and impact assessment on residents’ health risk. However, relevant information cannot be obtained from the website or are scattered on other websites. The integrated information network has not been able to merge all the information about the current environmental state of the park. And there is no map available on the website. It is difficult for users to get the environmental information and data they want to know or need to know through the website.
  1. It is difficult for the general public to understand the original data: although the information disclosure website reveals the original monitoring data, it is impossible for the layman without environmental science knowledge to interpret the meaning of the original data, and it does not help to ameliorate and reduce the doubts of the local residents about environmental risks of the science park.
  1. Concerning the supervision of pollution, people are more interested in understanding the environmental management methods of science parks, the possible environmental risks of individual manufacturer, the operation of the monitoring facilities and pollution prevention equipment of science parks, but related information cannot be obtained on the website.

The public want to know what kind of pollution there are in science parks, who are polluting the environment, what impact it has, and how science parks are managed. However, the environmental information provided by the Central Taiwan Science Park Integrated Environmental Information Network not only fails to meet the public’s needs, but also does not help to solve the public’s doubts about the environmental impact of the science park. 

The CTSP Bureau should perhaps reach a consensus with the manufacturers in the science park to increase the maximum possibility for manufacturers to disclose their own environmental information, jointly set up the science park integrated information network, and accept relevant stakeholders to participate in the website planning stage to jointly propose a list for environmental information disclosure and relevant method and content; on the other hand, the content of disclosed information should also consider the relevant management plan of the EIA conclusion and the follow-up actions, so that the public can check the current conditions of the park and keep up with the implementation of the EIA management plan through the integrated information network.

The CTSP Bureau and the manufacturers in the science park should jointly set up the science park integrated information network, so the residents can understand the environmental risks of individual manufacturers and the environmental management methods of science parks. Made by Perry Wu.

Data governance as a way to bring new vitality into the EIA process

For Taiwan, where environmental awareness is rising, one of the most important issues for the improvement of EIA system and the elevation of its efficiency is how to eliminate the information gap between the general public and the government and experts, and to promote effective communication and dialogue. 

In the era of big data, all government agencies should unify the monitoring format of the original data,  and incorporate the data disclosed by the government for reference in the EIA process as well as the independently investigated or monitored local data by the development unit into the same database. Most importantly, the agencies should also offer real-time visual browsing tools to translate relevant materials that originally can only be interpreted by experts into languages or images that the public can understand, so that the entry barriers for public participation can be lowered.

The existing data from environmental tracking and monitoring system of industrial parks or science parks can construct a dynamic and real-time information integration platform that enable the public to enquire timely current environmental conditions and help them understand the implementation of the environmental impact management plan. This can put invisible monitoring pressure on developers, and it can also make local people more secure in farming and living.

In addition, these continuously accumulated data can also be fed back to the EIA process, so that similar development behaviors or development sites can obtain sufficient and actual impact assessment of the current environmental conditions, and it can be taken into consideration with the existing development cases as a whole in order to improve the scientific quality and effectiveness of EIA decision-making.

The usefulness of information is not only to satisfy our needs for knowledge, but also to carry out communication and solve problem. Since the development of the EIA in Taiwan, it has been the administrative procedure in which public participation has taken the lead. Even though there are continuous critique about the efficiency of the EIA, we sincerely hope that reinforcing information disclosure will be the way to bring new vitality into the EIA process and lay an important cornerstone for public participation.

The article is authorized as CC BY (source name) 3.0 TW after 48 hours.

The cover photo is by piqsels



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