Revisiting the Ethics of Project Selection

Revisiting the Ethics of Project Selection

A major part of how Azavea pursues its mission is tied to how we select our projects. A year ago, I wrote a blog about our Project Selection Guidelines to share how we select (and reject) projects to match our mission. Many of our guidelines are quite general; they aren’t specific to a particular industry. For example:

  • “We want to be on the right side of history”
  • “Democracy is the worst system… except for all of the rest”
  • “Open knowledge systems are usually better than closed”
  • “We only have one planet”
  • “When there is uncertainty, we discuss the issues”

But sometimes we run into a concern specific to a single industry, and we’ve crafted something more nuanced. For example, our guideline around work in the defense and intelligence  industry: “We do not work on weapons systems, warfighting, or activities that will violate privacy, human rights, or civil liberties.” In these cases, we have come up with guard rails for ourselves that are specific to a particular domain. We rarely say, “We’ll never work with xyz organization,” because most organizations, particularly large ones, are complicated and they are often engaged in a broad array of activities. In the case of defense/intelligence work, if the Marines are providing disaster relief or helping with a refugee crisis, we want to provide the same kind of help as we would to USAID.

We had already crafted this industry-specific guideline for defense/intelligence, but that was the only one. But over the past year, we’ve had more requests for work in the energy industry. We had previously considered work in the energy industry on a case-by-case basis. For example, we were asked to work on projects related to fracking, and there was a case where we said yes (the project was intended to preserve the integrity of the forest ecosystems) and another when we said no (the project would have had a clear negative impact on the local water sources and agriculture). We included these case studies in our Project Selection Guidelines document. However, as Azavea’s work on Earth observation imagery has grown, we have had more requests to work on things related to energy. We have a general principle “We only have one planet”, but I felt like we needed something more specific.

The growing market for Earth observation imagery

For much of the Earth observation and remote sensing industry’s history, US defense and intelligence agencies have been a monopsony buyer. We’re all familiar with a monopoly, where there is one seller controlling the market. A monopsony is where there is one buyer. Similar to a monopoly, the absence of multiple buyers distorts the marketplace. In a monopsony, the dominant or single buyer determines all of the requirements and priorities of the product. Like a monopoly, a monopsony market structure can impede innovation and competition.

Over the past 20 years, falling costs for launch vehicles, the miniaturization of electronics and optics, and other advances have allowed for more players in the Earth observation marketplace. There are now more non-defense users (or buyers) of Earth observation imagery than there ever have been, and that civilian market continues to grow. The monopsony buyer market structure is gradually breaking down (this is a good thing). 

Drone flies overhead in front of a mountain
Source: Miguel Ángel Hernández on Unsplash

Our decision to invest in imagery tooling over the past decade is based on a thesis that this Earth observation work is going to become a significant driver of positive social and environmental impact. With an expanding marketplace, we believe that there will be a rapid growth in imagery being used for civilian ends with the potential for positive social impact. We’ve seen many use cases of Earth observation imagery being used to aid efforts in agriculture, international development, and humanitarian disaster response efforts. And as access becomes easier and cheaper, we expect this market will continue to grow.

Developing a general guideline for working with Big Energy

One of the largest non-defense users of Earth observation imagery today is energy companies. This industry is using imagery for siting well pads and monitoring pipelines as well as siting windmills and solar arrays, among other use cases. As we received more inquiries and RFPs over the past 18 months from this industry, we were having to make more case-by-case evaluations. We developed our Project Selection Guidelines specifically to help us avoid ad hoc decisions, and it was becoming clear that our guidelines were missing something. So we decided to develop a new guideline.

Two complicating case studies

Two recent inquiries prompted our consideration for a new project selection guideline. The first scenario was an inquiry from a data partner. They asked us for a proposal to develop a machine learning model for finding new oil well pads. With this data layer, companies could potentially learn about competitors’ activities before the well pads are in operation. 

The second scenario concerned using machine learning on aerial imagery to monitor oil and gas pipelines. Once a pipeline is operating, the owner is required to monitor the pipeline right-of-way. The most common cause of spills and leaks is the incursion of construction equipment in the pipeline right-of-way. Pipeline owners want to know about this happening as soon as possible so that they can intervene to prevent damage to the pipeline.

Both of these opportunities came to us within a few weeks of each other, but we have since had similar types of inquiries. These are not simple problems, and thus our answer to “Will we work with Big Energy?” is not cut and dried. Consider the implications of these two scenarios. Drilling for more oil certainly has potential for more negative impact: drilling releases additional carbon and methane into the atmosphere, and it can often have a negative impact on local communities. However, carrying out the monitoring of an existing piece of infrastructure feels different. Whether it’s a road or a pipeline, we have a responsibility to mitigate or avoid the potential harms created by the infrastructure. Monitoring an existing pipeline to prevent leaks/spills is a clear public good.

So how should we respond to these inquiries? To simply say “We will not work with oil and gas companies” seems like a simple solution and one that derives from one of our current guidelines: “we only have one planet”. However, it contradicts another principle: few organizations are entirely harmful. We ended up submitting a proposal for the oil pad detection inquiry, but we felt conflicted about it, and some colleagues came to regret that we had done so. Having a clearer, energy-specific guideline would have been helpful. We also pursued the pipeline monitoring project and have responded to other pipeline monitoring proposals. This direction represents more of a grey area for us.

Developing a thoughtful guideline

These scenarios for which there was initially no clear answer prompted us to develop a guideline for working with Big Energy. In developing this, we asked ourselves two questions: (1) Is the intent of the project aligned with our company values? And (2) are the secondary and tertiary consequences of helping an energy company be more efficient greater than the environmental impact of helping them?

In response to these questions, we developed the following guideline: “We do not work to support expansion of fossil fuel extraction.” This is not a blanket statement against working with energy companies, but attempts to encompass the nuances and complications of the work energy companies are taking on. Global energy companies, some of which are among the largest corporations in the world, are precisely the organizations that must undergo dramatic change in order to avert future disaster for the planet. When fossil fuel extraction is already occurring, we will work to mitigate, prevent, or override the environmental impacts. Where possible, when working with energy companies, Azavea will seek to take on projects that help reduce the environmental impact of these organizations and in so doing also work to support change-makers within these organizations that share our core values and understanding of climate change. 

However, we will not pursue projects that directly support oil, coal, and gas extraction or otherwise expand the carbon economy, expand extraction activities, or advocate for policy that promotes expanded fossil fuel extraction. We also recognize that projects which reduce the environmental impact of oil and gas companies or have a neutral environmental impact may indirectly contribute to the overall efficiency (and therefore sustainability) of oil and gas companies or enable them to make claims about the safety of their practices. However, rather than being a passive observer, we prefer to actively participate in the market and have the opportunity to influence the actions of these companies through our work and thereby contribute to ushering in the transformation they must undergo over the next several decades.

We’ll continue to review our guidelines as new projects are brought to us and complicated opportunities arise. The Project Selection Guidelines is a living document that we will iterate on as needed. This is one example of how we think critically about the work we take on and adjust the guidelines to fit new industries that we work with.

Considering energy in other company policies

While this is not a part of our Project Selection Guidelines, we have worked over the past 10 years to better understand our own contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. As a consequence, we track our energy usage over time and take steps to reduce energy usage. We track our scope 1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions. We report these as part of our B Corporation re-certification process. We consider energy in other policies we have developed, and continue to think critically about how we can reduce our carbon footprint. We have a longstanding travel policy that prioritizes public transit, virtual meetings, and other alternatives to air travel and single vehicle use. We don’t yet have a policy around purchasing carbon offsets for our Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions, but it’s something in which I have an active interest, and I’d like to explore in a future blog: stay tuned!