Environmental Justice Data Solution: A Holistic Approach

Produced by MDI Fall Scholars Minh Quach ’24, Madhvi Malhotra ‘24, Fanni Varhelyi ‘24

Environmental justice, increasingly prioritized in policy discussions, stands at the core of the Justice40 initiative. Launched at the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration in 2021, this comprehensive program encompasses an array of federal efforts aimed at ameliorating environmental disparities, with a focus on aiding disadvantaged communities. Via its Justice40 initiative, the administration pledged that 40% of the overall benefits would go to the disadvantaged communities identified by its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Such a significant funding allocation underscores Justice40’s monumental scope and the government’s strong commitment to addressing and forestalling environmental challenges. 

One of the challenges that has become apparent since launch are the complexities involved in navigating, tracking, and accessing these federally distributed funds, especially at the local levels. Ongoing programs like the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, Climate Pollution Reduction Grants, and Department of Transportation’s PROTECT, account for tens of billions of dollars in climate fundings, yet their varied eligibility criteria and complicated application process pose a serious capacity challenge to local governments. Consequently, this hinders the optimal and timely distribution of these public investments to the most affected communities.

Drawing an analogy from the report “Delivering on Justice40: Perspectives from State Agency Staff” by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), J40 funding is likened to “sealed cans”, often challenging for government staff to open. Despite the overarching positive direction of the government, local agents frequently encounter difficulties in securing funding and information necessary for participating in and advancing these initiatives. In response, the Environmental Impact Data Collaborative (EIDC) has recently developed a pioneering geolocator tool — metaphorically a can-opener — enabling comprehensive navigation of Justice40 statuses across multiple layers, from states and counties to cities, zip codes, congressional districts, and census blocks. Moreover, the EIDC team has also crafted a dashboard prototype that facilitates access to and analysis of funding data related to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, offering an in-depth perspective on the financial aspects of these initiatives.

During the Open Source Community for the Justice40 Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool group meeting in November, the EIDC, in partnership with EPIC, showcased their latest advancements in tracking, locating, and mapping disadvantaged status and EJ spending across the continental United States. This essential series of monthly community meetings bring together experts and policy leaders to exchange updates and insights.

For this November installment, Director Michael Bailey of EIDC highlighted how technological innovations could enhance policy implementation, emphasizing the need for a user-friendly digital EJ tool to support researchers and government officials. Team member Fanni Varhelyi (MS-DSPP ‘24) demonstrated the functionalities and potential applications of the two prototypes to the attendees. The team’s case study used an additional mapping layer of electronic vehicle charging stations across the country to show the interoperability of their EJ tools with the spatial tools existing in other knowledge domains.

The event attracted over 30 researchers, community organizers, and government representatives, many of whom are key figures in the EJ research community. The prototype developments and their showcase, well-received by the community, marked a positive milestone in the team’s ongoing journey. 

About the EIDC: The Environmental Impact Data Collaborative (EIDC) enables researchers, community groups, and policymakers to analyze and visualize data in ways that help them make environmental policy more effective and just. Our platform allows users to discover, access, merge, transform, analyze, visualize, and discuss hundreds of datasets with billions of rows of information.

The Environmental Impact Data Collaborative (EIDC) is a platform that enables community groups, policymakers and researchers to use data to learn, communicate and advocate on important environmental issues. The EIDC team gathers data, code and research literature into a single environment, making it easy for users to discover, transform, link, visualize and analyze data in ways that support their efforts to make environmental policy more effective and just.

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environmental justice