Making forest data fair and open

Paper by Renato A. F. de Lima : “It is a truth universally acknowledged that those in possession of time and good fortune must be in want of information. Nowhere is this more so than for tropical forests, which include the richest and most productive ecosystems on Earth. Information on tropical forest carbon and biodiversity, and how these are changing, is immensely valuable, and many different stakeholders wish to use data on tropical and subtropical forests. These include scientists, governments, nongovernmental organizations and commercial interests, such as those extracting timber or selling carbon credits. Another crucial, often-ignored group are the local communities for whom forest information may help to assert their rights and conserve or restore their forests.

A widespread view is that to lead to better public outcomes it is necessary and sufficient for forest data to be open and ‘Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable’ (FAIR). There is indeed a powerful case. Open data — those that anyone can use and share without restrictions — can encourage transparency and reproducibility, foster innovation and be used more widely, thus translating into a greater public good (for example, Open biological collections and genetic sequences such as GBIF or GenBank have enabled species discovery, and open Earth observation data helps people to understand and monitor deforestation (for example, Global Forest Watch). But the perspectives of those who actually make the forest measurements are much less recognized, meaning that open and FAIR data can be extremely unfair indeed. We argue here that forest data policies and practices must be fair in the correct, linguistic use of the term — just and equitable.

In a world in which forest data origination — measuring, monitoring and sustaining forest science — is secured by large, long-term capital investment (such as through space missions and some officially supported national forest inventories), making all data open makes perfect sense. But where data origination depends on insecure funding and precarious employment conditions, top-down calls to make these data open can be deeply problematic. Even when well-intentioned, such calls ignore the socioeconomic context of the places where the forest plots are located and how knowledge is created, entrenching the structural inequalities that characterize scientific research and collaboration among and within nations. A recent review found scant evidence for open data ever lessening such inequalities. Clearly, only a privileged part of the global community is currently able to exploit the potential of open forest data. Meanwhile, some local communities are de facto owners of their forests and associated knowledge, so making information open — for example, the location of valuable species — may carry risks to themselves and their forests….(More)”.