Information imperialism and digital colonialism: Why we need to make sure we are building capacity in Oceanic countries

After attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2019 Conference, I began to think a great deal about the role of science and scientific research in addressing global environmental changes. With nearly 30,000 attendees, this is consistently the second largest annual gathering of researchers in the world focusing on a vast variety of topics applicable to this course including atmospheric science, climate change, environmental policy, and more. It is truly inspiring to see a range of interdisciplinary students, researchers, and practitioners convene to discuss, collaborate, and debate new scientific principles for the betterment of society. Specific to this course, there were sessions on monitoring forced migrations using satellite observations, quantifying oceanic fluxes and their effects on communities, and forecasting potential future human-climate interactions. However, at a few talks a phrase began to be repeated that our course must be specifically aware of and that is the idea of information imperialism or a new digital colonialism.

Digital colonialism can be defined as the control of the flow of information as well as the data infrastructure (software, hardware, network, etc.) as a means to exert economic dominance and imperial control over another nation. Organizations and institutes from all across the globe conduct research regarding these island nations, but too often the knowledge gained is held from them. Having to pay for research results (as in the case for high resolution satellite imagery), or not having access due to information sensitivity (as in the case of some classified strategic military information) are just two examples of how information might be restricted from getting into the hands of Oceania.

While as a nation we may not intentionally be exerting control over island nations, we need to ensure that the work we are doing is in conjunction with their actual needs and not just furthering US objectives. Through this course we have partly looked at climate risk from a security perspective. Rightfully so, as others have addressed in their blog posts, the US has numerous strategic stations in the region. Furthermore, we have consistently asked guest speakers and read articles on the motives of other countries for their spending in the region. We should leverage our interests to support oceanic countries, but it is critical we remember that for these nations, it is not a question of international security but a question of existence.

Building sustainable capacity through more than just grants and loans

We’ve discussed numerous international agencies, non-profits, and countries that are actively contributing funds in the form of loans and grants to Oceania to give them resources to combat the effects of climate change. As I have discussed in another blog post and as we learned from some of our interactions with different institutes, some of these investments, particularly some infrastructure investments, are if anything adversely affecting communities. This outward influence is trapping nations into loans for faulty solutions. According to the Lowy institute, only 15% of investments in the region have been through loans (predominantly China and the Asian Development Banks), but this may not include other in-direct investments such as leasing islands or non-monetary investments such as leasing planes and boats (as discussed in class).

While we compete for influence in the region through investments, we may be inadvertently doing harm to these nations. Clearly oceanic countries need monetary resources to combat climate change. However, in conjunction with monetary grants, we can better build sustainable capacity in nations by putting actionable information, data, and science into their hands. Rising sea levels, declining crop growth, and increased storm threats are a completely different challenge for these nations that requires innovative solutions and not cheap investments in technology not suited for small island nations. Connecting government organizations with private industries to work with countries to implement community specific solutions based on regional research can better serve these nations. Thousands of researchers across the globe are working on building resilient communities and instilling this knowledge into Oceania can be a much more lasting and sustainable solution.

Identifying information gaps for future growth

Possibly the greatest challenge for any researcher is gaining access to data if that data even exists. We could spend months combing the internet and reaching out to institutes looking for a specific dataset that may or may not even exist. Oceania is uniquely difficult because having thousands of small islands spread out over large distances makes it more difficult to obtain quality data, and data that does exist can come at a significant cost. Furthermore, some private organizations and institutes are unwilling to assist in work in this region because other developing regions of the world are more accessible (a unique lesson learned while at AGU 2019).

We have clearly established that there is a lack of data for Oceania. This lack of information also means there is a lack of knowing what isn’t available. As researchers, over the remainder of this course we need to record and track what data we are unable to find because possibly one of the most useful outcomes we can produce is a knowledge base of what knowledge is missing. This can then be used by stakeholders to identify where gaps can be filled through future investments. Every research project begins with the examination of available data, and if every institute is unaware of what is and is not available (or where to find such data) time and resources will continually be wasted looking for such information. Instead of having this exploratory search for knowledge be repeated for every project from every institute, our course can and should identify every available data repository to inform others on the availability of information.

We’ve already experienced through the course the necessary hoops to jump through in order to conduct research in the region. These obstacles make sense because they discourage unnecessary influence in the region, but this has the potential to also hinder the flow of information into the hands of these countries. Proper monetary and non-monetary investments need to be made in the region in conjunction with governmental and private partnerships to give Oceania a broad set of tools to combat climate change.

Matthew Preisser is a second year dual degree student at the LBJ School and Cockrell School of Engineering (Master's of Public Affairs and Environmental and Water Resources Engineering). He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Biosystems Engineering and minors in German and Sustainability in 2018. His research interests include the application of technology and applied sciences to benefit at-risk communities impacted by climate change and extreme weather events. Matthew is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow where he is researching the incorporation of socioeconomic factors into predictive flood modeling. He is also a Brumley Next Generation Fellow through the Robert Strauss Center.

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