Sustainability from Open Data
Thaubing Footprint: A New Sustainability Movement Based on Open Data

Thaubing Footprint

© GCAA is the author of this picture and has authorized FNF to use it following CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Taiwan’s GCAA leveraged the power of civil society and Taiwan’s vibrant civic tech community to create the wildly successful website “Thaubing Footprint” that monitors pollution and that is based on open data. Hung-wen Tseng explains how GCAA achieved that, and shares her recipes for innovation with FNF Global Innovation Hub. Register for Innovation for Democracy Café on April 20, UTC 9am to learn more about this project!

The “Thaubing Footprint environmental data visualization website” was initiated by the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance (GCAA).             “Thaubing” means “transparent” in Taiwanese. The website’s complete name is “透明足跡,” which means “transparent footprint” in Mandarin. It was born when GCAA found that Taiwan was facing a series of environmental challenges. Due to the lack of sufficient and objective environmental data, the government, enterprises, and affected residents often fell in a deadlock where every side insists on their point of view when encountering pollution incidents. Moreover, while increasing disasters caused by climate change proved that the brown economy     (the economic model that favors economic growth over environmental protection, considering sacrificing the environment to be the price that people have to pay for pursuing economic growth. For example, countries guided by this model will rely on fossil fuels and thus produce massive pollution) led to the bottleneck of development, the public debate was still struggling to find the balance between economic development and environmental protection. To break this dilemma, GCAA launched "Thaubing Footprint website". By advocating transparency of government's environmental information, the website aims to expand public participation and create an impetus to green economy.

How it all began - the Thaubing Footprint

The website’s pollution database was established by the GCAA with the help of civic tech communities. It provides a platform for public participation and monitoring. Each month, the website received more than 100,000 visits. Users are mostly from corporations and financial institutions with the purpose of managing supply chain and implementing green finance. Also, residents affected by pollution said that now it only took 10 minutes instead of a day to obtain the corporate violation and exceeding emission records. By analyzing and comparing the data, the GCAA has also identified a number of vulnerabilities in government’s measures, contributed in the amendments to more than ten bills, and discovered medium to high polluting factories on agricultural lands that intentionally evaded the government’s enforcement. Following that, GCAA also used the data as evidence to ask Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) to re-examine factories of this kind.

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© © GCAA is the author of this picture and has authorized FNF to use it following CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The first spin off Scan-it-before-buying it App

The GCAA further connected the Thaubing Footprint website with corporate violation records and product data to develop an app - "Scan-It-Before-Buying-It" in 2020. The app allows the public to help extend the use of open data and encourage corporates to take on social responsibilities. By simply using the app to scan the product barcode or entering keywords to search the manufacturers' violation records, the public can easily choose eco-friendly products. The app earned the title of "The Best Hidden Gem of Google Play" in 2020.

How sustainable is my supplier? - the ESG Detector

To expedite the transition to sustainability, based on the Thaubing Footprint website, GCAA is developing the "ESG Detector" - a useful tool designed for examining corporate carbon reduction and their performance on sustainable development. By melding 63 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) sustainability data, such as corporate pollution, carbon emission, and water and electricity consumption, it not only holds corporations accountable for carrying out their commitment to sustainability, but also helps them precisely identify the road map to accelerate their progress towards sustainability. Businesses involved in supply chain and financial institutions could also utilize the data to find the real sustainable corporations, and thereby pour their capital into those, making headway in green finance. The Detector also helps investors and the public cull those financial products or banks that claimed themselves as sustainable but actually produced high pollution, enabling everyone to play a part in facilitating industrial sustainability or sustainable industry.

From the process of creating the Thaubing Footprint website, and subsequent products, there are three lessons GCAA would like to share. Our “recipes” for open-data based innovation, if you will:

1) Help the government face its fear: build up partnership with the government to advocate for open data

These GCAA’s projects require collection and compilation of massive open environmental data. However, the government will not necessarily open up data right after receiving a request, and the way that it releases data may not be what people expect. Take GCAA’s experience for example, at first, when GCAA asked for disclosing real-time monitoring data of factories, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) replied that they would be displayed on the digital signboards on the external walls of factories, which was not what GCAA asked for. Similarly, when GCAA asked EPA to reveal the causes of corporate environmental violations, EPA refused by claiming that they were trade secrets, and considered it unfair to assert that the corporations did not do their most on environmental protection only based on those causes. When GCAA asked for disclosing information on occupational accidents, the authorities passed the buck around, stating that they were not competent. When GCAA asked the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to provide information on subsidies to enterprises according to the International Accounting Standards, FSC affirmed that there was no applicable legislation in Taiwan.

From what GCAA experienced, governments can always find a reason not to open up data, and the buck-passing between central and local authorities is nothing new. However, GCAA found that the cause behind this was the government agencies’ unspoken fear of becoming a target of public censure. Since if they disclose more data, the defects and flaws of their governance will be easily found.

Therefore, tackling such fear was on the top of GCAA’s to-do-list, and that was why GCAA set its goal as helping the government truly understand the legitimacy and importance of open data. GCAA’s first step is initiating continuous and step-by-step communication with the government. Through communication, we were able to put ourselves in the government’s shoes and understand their difficulties, and thereby work together for the solution. Without these efforts to build up mutual trust and partnership, GCAA could not help government agencies tackle their fear and move forward. Moreover, GCAA strove to help both government agencies and enterprises understand that open data advocacy did not intend to incite the public to pick fights with them. Instead, it was to allow the public to participate in the governance process and thus ask them to take their share of responsibility of environmental protection.

For example, GCAA had analyzed and compared the real-time monitoring data from no. 6 Naphtha Cracker plant of the Formosa Plastics to investigate the long-standing controversy on whether it really caused pollution, and thereby found the regulation loopholes that allowed numerous excessive emissions. Instead of blaming the government and the company for their omission, GCAA focused its works on revising the relevant laws and regulations, and worked together with EPA to tackle all the obstacles to improvement of those regulations. This collaboration successfully built a trusting relationship between GCAA and EPA.

GCAA’s experience manifests that open data is the key to initiate straightforward dialogue between the society, the government, and corporations, and it will be a one-way ticket leading the government to a more transparent future. In the Internet era, the threshold for the general public to oversee corporates has been lowered significantly, and data will play an important role. Open data will not only allow the public to hold the government accountable, but also rebuild the mutual trust between both sides, and thus contribute to the sustainable development in a democratic society.

2) Turning open data into an effective tool to make the government accountable: facilitate civil society’s use of it

GCAA also received doubts when initiating the Thaubing Footprint website. The question often asked is: “If NGOs don’t have sufficient financial support, why don’t they request the government to spruce up the existing websites, instead of building a new one relying on crowdfunding?” The experience of Thau-bing Footprint website has given the answer: only when the data can be used by civil society and private sectors for various kinds of initiatives, the value of data can be maximized. If we are content with the government publishing data on their websites, tremendous benefits and values that data can bring to the public will go to waste.

For instance, the search function on EPA's website for corporate violation records was not widely used by the public nor was they any help in terms of oversight. However, the Thaubing Footprint website improved the data accessibility by optimizing the compilation of corporate information and violation records. Based on that, GCAA was able to list and announce the top 10 violating companies of the year at its annual conference, and exhort the suppliers or group parent companies to take social responsibility. GACC’s action has led many world-renowned brands to start using the Thaubing Footprint website in their supply chain management to reduce pollution. Nowadays, when reviewing a loan, banks would also use Thaubing Footprint website as a reference to require corporates to reduce pollution and spur them to pay the penalties, and thereby attain green finance.

The GCAA further applied the Thaubing Footprint website to tackle illegal factories on agriculture lands. The Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) was determined to deal with this problem, but its approach invoked controversy. The amount of such factories was massive and they have been existing for decades. To encourage them to address pollution problems and make them manageable, the government set up the final grace period of registration. Among the factories, only the ones of low-level pollution were allowed to register. After registration, they could be legalized and was obligated to follow environmental regulation. Factories that failed to register within the deadline would be seen as illegal and forced to shut down. However, problems arose with this approach: How does the government keep track of their pollution risks? Is relevant information on factories available for the public to hold them accountable? Addressing them, the GCAA collaborated with civic tech communities in connecting the data on agricultural land mapping, taxation, factory registration, and environmental violation records to chase down these factories: those who claimed to produce low pollution but were actually medium to high polluters, and those who were not included in the monitoring system despite their previous violation records. The GCAA proposed this idea to the "Presidential Hackathon” as well. This project disclosed vulnerabilities of existing regulation, and thereby pushed the MOEA to re-examine the polluting factories and gradually disclose the relevant data, and set the stage for future collaboration between the public and private sectors.

From the example above, GCAA learned that advocating for open data should not be merely asking the government to release data and make it searchable online. To really make the data “open,” the government should make data interoperable with different software and easily reused by the people. For example, if people want to acquire environmental data released by the government, searching it through the government's websites should not be their only option. The government should also let people download the raw data, and provide the data in any other forms that are readable and processable in various kinds of software such as excel and word. By doing so, the civil society is able to use the data to create more public befits. If data cannot be easily used by the people, it will not truly become the resource for green supply chain, green finance, and changing the unequal relationship between the government and the society regarding issues such as factories on agricultural land.

3) Civic tech communities’ probe into data encourages public participation.

The input of civic tech communities were the inevitable forces carrying the Thaubing  Footprint Project forward. During the first stage of advocating for open environmental data in Taiwan, the government was reluctant to open up the data set for real-time monitoring. The GCAA collaborated with the members of the gov-zero network (g0v.tw) and used web crawlers to capture local environmental protection bureaus' real-time monitoring data, which then became the first environmental data available on the Thaubing Footprint website. Since then, civic tech communities played an essential role in almost every expansion project of the Thaubing Footprint database. For example, they helped establish the database of parent companies and subsidiaries of the group, the product database of the "Scan-it-Before-Buying-it" app, and the sustainability database of the ESG Detector.

It's not difficult to work with civic tech communities since they comprise a group of professionals willing to make a contribution to society. Once they comprehend the importance of the issues and are informed of the need for collaboration, they are willing to help. However, to have a smooth collaboration, it is very important to find people who are good at translation of technical languages and issue languages.

Actually, the most difficult part is to scale up public participation - what the Scan-it-Before-Buying-it app has been trying to achieve. Every day, new products are manufactured, and that means countless barcodes are left to be processed by the Scan-it-Before-Buying-it app. Although it posed a challenge to categorize those barcodes into the app’s database, it also created a momentum to invite the citizens to work together: the GCAA invited every app user to collectively input those barcodes into the app’s database. Users can also use the app to appeal to the manufacturers for pollution reductions, and some companies actually responded and gave a commitment to improvement, making headway in responsible production and consumption.

The Thaubing Footprint website, by nature, is not only a data platform, but also an unprecedented sustainability movement. In this movement, every participant was open-minded, and embraced cross-disciplinary cooperation. Those are the key to discover a new route of sustainability movement and seek new energy to achieve green economy. Open data has not only served as a key to accomplish participants’ goal, but will also keep igniting more sparks in various disciplines. More innovative initiatives will be inspired, especially those aiming to facilitate public participation and government accountability, making sustainability and democracy as indispensable elements of Taiwanese society. Thaubing Footprint website will continuously serve as a platform encouraging public participation to make Taiwan progress towards sustainable development.

If you want to learn more about GCAA and their projects, follow these links!

Thaubing Footprint website:  https://thaubing.gcaa.org.tw/

Scan-it-Before-Buying-it : 

https://reurl.cc/AKaydK (For iOS)

https://reurl.cc/g03Qzb (For Android)

The Green Citizens' Action Alliance: http://www.gcaa.org.tw/

And click here to register for Innovation for Democracy Café on April 20, UTC 9am! Ms Tseng will share more experience surrounding GCAA’s projects there!

*Hung-wen Tseng is the Deputy Secretary-General of the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance