Smriti Mallapaty looks at an attempt to overcome the difficulties of accessing and understanding environmental and societal information.
“We need to bridge the gap between the geeks and the suits,” says Steven Ramage, director of marketing and communications at the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), an international industry consortium of companies, government agencies and universities developing interface standards.
Ramage, a self-described geek in a suit, was explaining the challenges facing the creation of a Network of Networks initiative that would enable environmental and social information to be shared across platforms and cultures.
“There is a gap between the people technically doing the work and the policymakers. And there is this translation requirement but there are very few translators,” he said at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December).
“If the gap between the geeks and the suits is not filled we may get into no-man’s-land and people may get lost,” he warned.
The Network of Networks idea was discussed by the conference’s working group on policy, governance and institutional networking and adopted as a “special initiative” to be taken forward to Rio+20 — the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil next June.
“In a nutshell,” said the working group’s ‘white paper’, “ the key problem is that the many current networks which directly or indirectly address environmental issues are not connected and thus the enormous advantages for monitoring environmental changes, understanding the drivers behind these changes and developing appropriate and more environmentally sustainable policies and implementation programmes are not being realised.
“A Network of Networks would begin to overcome the lack of data, network and human connectivity which currently exists and in so doing create scope to realise the monitoring, understanding and implementation opportunities.”
The paper describes the three main components as: institutional cooperation and partnerships; common content; and shared infrastructure and tools.
The white paper stressed that the integration of environmental networks regionally and globally “is of particular importance for developing countries, given the prominent role they can play in safeguarding the integrity of key biodiversity hotspots across the globe“.
More colourfully, José Achache, secretariat director of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), the Switzerland-based organisation coordinating efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), commented: “It is a little bit like the Biblical situation of the tower of Babel.
They can’t communicate, they can’t talk to each other and they can’t work together.”
For example, Ramage told SciDev.Net, “there are 740 different ways of explaining water.”
The use of any one meaning must be understood across all networks, which requires a more complex understanding of meaning than available search engines can achieve.
“It is all about data integration. If you search the word ‘jaguar’ in Google you may get an image of a car or of a large animal,” Michael Wilson, programme officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told SciDev.Net.
A similar search would not “make the connection between ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ and ‘carbon dioxide’”.
Ultimately a communication system is needed that can relate similar concepts and underpin them with the relevant data. Standards like those developed by Ramage’s organisation for, say, aviation, are an example of the way forward.
Problem of semantics
“We need to solve the problem of semantics and the question of making sure that whatever way the query is formulated it is understood by the system and provided with the appropriate answer,” said Achache.
Achache said the idea took root at the International Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1982, where a vision was articulated of “a world where decisions and actions were informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained observation”.
This led to the formation of GEO and GEOSS. The aim now is for the Network of Networks to be extended to include not only governments and international organisations, but also nongovernmental organisations and the private sector, and to make services accessible at the level of individuals.
Describing how the network of networks would function, Jack Dangermond, CEO and president of the California-based Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), said in Abu Dhabi, “Geography will be the integrating principle, spatial information and standards will bring them together”.
Networks would maintain their autonomy, functioning as isolated nodes linked by a standardised language, he said. Different levels of sharing and access to information would be made available to specific user groups.
The idea is to solve the problem of data incompatibility without having to merge all the data into one huge source of information. Achache pointed out that each source of geospatial data was non-linear and trying to couple even two non-linear systems “is a nightmare”.
A few specialists are still attempting to create such a centralised super-machine that could be the source of all data, in contrast to a decentralised networks concept.
“Basically, I think that Google is not a network. Google is a central node where people put their data,” said Dangermond in an interview with SciDev.Net. “So in one case there is the central model and in another case there is the distributed model. The distributed model is actually a network of services, the Google model is ‘put your data into Google’.”
Networks often form spontaneously, as will, in the opinion of many technology experts, a network of networks.
“In every field of development you have different groups that form networks organically and will sooner or later group together,” said Nickolai Denisov, senior associate at the Zoï Environment Network based in Geneva. “If you want to organise the movement of data and to make it long-lasting then you need to look at what makes this data move and find people who can make it move.”
Lalanath de Silva, director of the World Resources Institute’s Access Initiative, believes that “a network works best when it supplies a need. When you force people into networks, it works for a while then peters out,” he said.
The necessary incentives are in place for the organic emergence of a network of networks, said Dangermond, and technology would facilitate progress: “It does not require policy-enabling. It is going to happen with very little effort.”
Despite the technological push, a major challenge will be to overcome communication barriers between other stakeholders in environment decision-making.
“Really, there are two communities here at the conference - people who have a very technical orientation and are at the peak of expertise and another community dealing with access rights,” said Jeremy Wates, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of citizen organisations. “When we talk about networks I think there are functioning networks on both sides of the divide but to what extent there are networks between the divide is questionable.”
Work towards a Network of Networks did not finish with the Abu Dhabi meeting. On the final day, the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, co-organisers of the meeting with UNEP, said it would continue to support the concept in the run-up to next year’s Rio+20 conference.