Editor’s note: Tiernan Doyle is FAC Net’s Strategy Director. In this blog, she shares an overview of a recent learning series for the Fire Networks on “data equity,” and how we can improve understanding of and approach to a community’s fire vulnerability through just practices.

Okay, but… what is data equity?

I was describing a learning series I was designing for the Fire Networks and waxing enthusiastic to a colleague about the topic of data equity. “That sounds really cool, but… what is it?” was the very understandable question that quickly followed. Data equity is both an effort to embed an equity lens into all data work throughout a project; as well as principles and practices to help make equity in your project a functional reality. Data equity work could include workshopping project goals to clarify whose mindset and framework is being prioritized in project design; it could be identifying whose data is missing from a project; and it could mean transferring control of data entirely over to community members to handle, maintain, and use as they see fit. Fundamentally, it is questioning whether our data processes are equitable and re-envisioning them if they are not. In the words of Abigail Echo Hawke, Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and Executive Vice President, Seattle Indian Health Board, data equity is “data for us and by us.”

This may feel strange in a world where data is omnipresent to the point of overwhelm, and we are often entangled in highly inequitable data relationships. Every time we visit a website and are tracked by those delicious sounding, but unfortunately invisible “cookies,” we are participating in a data exchange that we often don’t have much control over, but is highly lucrative for advertisers and data brokers. Working on data equity means looking for ways to make those relationships less one sided, and more about equal exchange and power. And thinking about how to make data projects more equitable, inclusive, and co-designed by all stakeholders comes with a wide variety of benefits.

Some of the most obvious illustrations of the importance of data equity come from the realm of public health and safety. For example, it is only in the last few years that female crash test dummies have been introduced. Prior to this, crash test dummies were built with the blueprint of an average male from the 1970s. There was little consideration made for how female bodies with different weights, musculature, and other features would fare, let alone other types of bodies that are not all similarly abled. But now researchers are asking how we can get better data to explain why women are more often severely injured in car crashes, and how to supplement crash test dummy data to support better safety outcomes. Data equity can be critical for improving how all of us experience and engage with our environment, both human made and not. As Dr. Melanie Feinberg put it in her essay on the myth of objective data, “data is created, not found; and … creating it well demands humanity, rather than objectivity.”

What does this have to do with fire?

Data equity has an immense amount to do with fire adaptation at every scale, from individual to community, to policy creation. Recent studies are exploring data gaps in how personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed for firefighters. One study showed that less than 4% of female wildland firefighters felt their gear fit them well; while 40-49% felt that their gear did not provide them adequate thermal, liquid or particulate protection because of poor fit. As PPE was created for one type of body, and other needs and data were missing from conversation and design, female firefighters have been put at risk for short and long term negative health impacts.

At larger scales, missing data can reduce wildfire resilience for population groups of various sizes. In their study of the construction of wildfire vulnerability, Lambrou et al. (2023) point out that there are significant gaps in information on why certain populations are more likely to focus on disaster preparedness, and how the overwhelming emphasis on studying homeowners makes their needs appear more central in the data than those of renters or other house inhabitants. There are many more gaps in how we understand vulnerability to wildfire; all of which complicates our ability to achieve better fire outcomes. So how do we make sure that everyone’s information is included? How do we partner on data collection instead of exploiting or scraping information? How do we put that data to use in ways that work for the people that contributed the data? And how do we measure our successes when success may look different to different people and in different cultures?

It was out of these questions, and the fire adaptation leaders pushing us to ask them, that we created a data equity series called “Data for the People,” that we ran last year. More and more grant programs, planning/prioritization efforts and policy efforts are seeking to advance fire adaptation in equitable ways. For example, the California Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Regional Forest and Fire Capacity (RFFC) program includes the directive that “development strategies should be equitable, including supporting areas, communities, and organizations with lower capacity.” Based on direction like this and other grants, our network members wanted to be sure that they had the skills necessary to authentically and equitably build good data into every step of their projects. Thankfully, funders like the DOC don’t just expect their grantees to advance “equity,” but also allow us to invest their funding in understanding what exactly equity and advancing it mean. So, working with grant funding from the DOC’s RFFC program, and from a private grant from JP Morgan Chase Foundation, we were able to design a four part series that covered various questions around data equity at large and small scales.

Data equity resources and lessons learned 

We began the series with a Data Equity Primer, taught by We All Count. In this one-hour introduction  to the topic, we looked at how data problems can yield different answers based on whose mental model is being prioritized. This was a level-setting moment to help us understand what a critical difference project design makes and how easily inequities can be introduced from the very beginning. Our key resource from this session was a checklist of questions to ask as you design your project to help shape it as equitably as possible.

Our second session, Planning with Community Based Data, covered a lot of ground, including fundamental principles of community outreach, methods for bringing qualitative and values data into spatial planning, and how to co-design projects and plans with tribes. Our speakers showcased a wide range of methods and project types were all changed and refined because of community input. The message that rang through loud and clear across these diverse projects was that centering community members as the co-designers of data collection methods was a critical component for project success. Resources from this session included the Karuk Transportation Plan; Dr. Richard Sadler’s paper on incorporating qualitative community input into geospatial planning; and Dr. Savannah D’Evelyn’s discussion of how she co-created data collection with tribal members to help understand smoke impacts on different populations. 

For the third session, Tribal Data Sovereignty, our speakers covered definitions and key principles of tribal data sovereignty as well as real world examples of how to build successful and respectful data partnerships with tribes. We heard nuances of outreach and engagement approaches based on the different geographies and tribal affiliations of our speakers, but were also given critical resources on the fundamentals of honoring and preserving tribal data sovereignty more generally. For more information, we recommend the Collaboratory for Indigenous Data, which publishes a wide range of relevant resources. 

Our final session focused on Equitable Evaluation, where Ciaran Camman and Sheila Matano, walked participants through how to build principles of equity into an evaluation setting. Discussion included ways to construct evaluation and planning processes that would help maintain an equity lens throughout the lifecycle of projects and how to build trust with community. Further resources can be found at the Equitable Evaluation Initiative website.

A take-home sheet of these and other resources for further learning from this series’ sessions can be found here.

Click to see the full PDF version of the take-home sheet with resources from the learning series.

Impacts of the Sessions

We chose to cover a broad range of topics in this series. This was so we could unpack different types of data and examine questions about equity in different types of projects. We posed these sessions as invitations to discussion rather than as instructions on how to perform specific tasks. And in return, we were absolutely blown away by the thoughtfulness and interest with which our participants engaged in this series. Everyone brought different backgrounds, experiences, and projects that they were working on. But their questions, insights, and feedback showed clearly how committed our participants are to fostering equitable resource allocation, risk reduction, and capacity building for all members of their community.

When asked what they were thinking differently about after this series, the common response focused on a new understanding of partnerships and rethinking how community could be centered within their projects. One participant stated, “I’m going to look at how to center my partners in this evaluation process.” And another, “I’m going to explore how we include local knowledge and TEK in our capacity discussions.” The tribal data session was especially impactful, and our participants shared that they enjoyed learning about different types of tribal data; held a new understanding of how to respect tribal data; and were seeing data work as an opportunity to partner with tribes for mutual benefit and relationship building that was grounded in respect for the tribe’s specific culture, timeline, and calendar.  

Where We Go Next

Our work to unpack data equity, and how to construct programs and evaluation systems with equity in mind, will continue through the next year and beyond. Building on our data equity series, we have already held two sessions looking at the tools used to build definitions of vulnerability at community scale and the models that assign vulnerability for federal grant applications. We will be holding a second, extended version of our equitable evaluation session in April 2024. We will also be releasing a guide to inclusive outreach for community wildfire protection plans later this year. Recognizing that data collection can be a barrier to building data equity, we are also working on a community resilience mapping package that forefronts community values and networks as critical assets for risk reduction. This will complement our existing FAC Pathways Tool that we continue to build out and refine with new resources.

We are incredibly grateful to our funders for supporting this work, and to the members, partners, and thought leaders that are helping us expand our understanding of the critical importance of data equity and the new strengths, and community transformation we see in their thoughtful, collaborative design of wildfire resilience.

This publication was funded in whole or in part through the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity program, by a grant awarded by the California Department of Conservation.


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