Greenpeace International CTO Chomba-Kinywa - the challenge of leveraging tech to use data to tackle climate change
Environment campaigner is using tech to empower community action and foster global mobilization.
Environmental group Greenpeace has been campaigning for over 50 years to protect nature and wildlife. The non-profit organization has had a number of important victories over its half-century, including bans on nuclear testing, fishing driftnets, commercial whaling and seal hunts. While Greenpeace still patrols the seas in its iconic Rainbow Warrior ship as it’s been doing since 1978, technology, especially data, now plays a vital role in its campaigns.
Operating in more than 50 countries, Greenpeace is exploring how it can use data to win campaigns around climate change, and how technology can find common threads across national borders that can lead to a global mobilization. Greenpeace International CTO Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa explains:
Climate is a really big topic for the entire world. It's not people in Mozambique affected or people on the west coast of the US, the whole world is facing this, but we're all facing it in very different ways.
We need to do something as humanity if we're to survive. How do we start to connect people around the world using tech, find those stories that connect us and use tech to amplify them?
While Greenpeace is busy exploring technologies that can help protect the planet, the organization isn’t planning to take all the necessary actions. Rather, it is encouraging people to take on the governments, regulators and big companies that are messing up the climate in their own communities, hence its slogan ‘A Billion Acts of Courage’.
To support these acts, Greenpeace has access to data that communities can use to drive their message home and see results. Chomba-Kinywa explains:
You can go to your leaders now and make all the noise you want, but there are a lot of climate deniers. If you go with facts and figures, it becomes a lot more difficult for them to just brush you off. One of the roles we can play is this access to information that we have, how do we make that digestible and consumable to communities.
Greenpeace is working on various open-source tools that activists can use to easily and quickly set up a website or social channel, where they can plan action in a confidential and safe manner, she adds:
That's the role I see Greenpeace playing. It's facilitating using the resources that we have, but allowing communities who are experiencing and living this reality to take action themselves.
One example of this action came during the pandemic, when Greenpeace facilitated a project for young people to explore data about their community, identify an issue and then do something about it. In Bangladesh, the government was running a program offering employment opportunities for young people, requesting they visit its offices to apply. After collecting data in the community, the researchers discovered there was no wheelchair ramp to enter the government building. Chomba-Kinywa says:
The young people did this amazing emotional video of a young guy that sees this ad and wants to go, gets there, he's in a wheelchair, there's no wheelchair ramp, so he can't get into the office and access this opportunity.
The video went viral, leading to the council office putting in a ramp for disabled people:
Using data, talking, collecting, researching, led to some action.
While Greenpeace is keenly exploring the potential for data to bolster its work, Chomba-Kinywa was less enthused about the impact some emerging technologies are having. The organization is investigating how it can become a technologically-mature organization, ready to harness any opportunities that technology presents to it really quickly. However, Greenpeace hasn’t been able to leverage technology as much as it would want to, due to certain areas not evolving, she says:
In some ways, it's moving really rapidly, but I see that more on the social side than on the actual tech side. For the last eight, nine, 10 years, the buzzwords were IoT and blockchain. Those technologies present a lot of opportunity but I don't see that we've been able to use them as much as we could to advance causes like how do we make sure homeless people have homes? How do we secure jobs for people?
On the social side, however, the use of technology by ordinary people has accelerated hugely, which Chomba-Kinywa says has been the biggest change for business. This has highlighted the need for organizations to ensure their business is mature enough to keep up with what's happening in the external context of society:
We've seen a lot of movements that come together really quickly and if you're not catching up or if you're not ready, you get left behind.
While seeing the value in social media for connecting communities and leading to direct action - as evidenced by the viral video leading to a wheelchair ramp - Chomba-Kinywa is concerned about its polarizing effects. The algorithms put in place by the tech giants, which show only far right or far left messages for example, are increasing inequality in terms of access to digital because they push people into a specific corner, she argues:
Not many of us have what it takes to understand this and game the algorithm so that I have full access to the information that I need to have. Very few of us are able to figure that out. So I will forever get information about how this is the only message and this is the person you must vote for.
It's widening that gap if I'm making judgments based on the wrong set of data or a skewed set of data. I still strongly think tech has the ability to connect us, has the ability to reduce those gaps. But we need to be very deliberate about it.