The issue of access to information could determine the success or otherwise of next year’s UN conference on sustainable development, Rio+20, a member of Brazil’s national preparatory committee told the Eye on Earth Summit which opened in Abu Dhabi on Monday (12 December).
"Eye on Earth is an outcome of Rio, Rio will be an outcome of Eye on Earth because information is the key issue," Aspacia Camargo, a former Brazilian deputy environment minister and now a Green Party MP, told the opening session.
"This Eye on Earth summit will make the difference and will contribute to the success of Rio+20," she said, and, in turn, the Brazil conference in June 2012 could depend on "our ability to commit leaders and governments towards better information".
Information needs include the ability to measure the 'green economy', expected to be a key topic of discussion by world leaders in Rio, she said.
"We must approve some kind of legally binding initiative for green GDP, for green credits, for green accountability, but we also have to measure eradication of poverty," said Camargo.
Access to quality information on the environment and society is the focus of the four-day Abu Dhabi meeting.
Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, co-organiser, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), of the meeting, told the opening session: “This summit is held in recognition that environmental and societal data should be collected in a concerted manner, at its source, made accessible and affordable and should be used to underpin reporting and support decision-making in order to achieve sustainable development.
"This is especially important to emerging economies, such as the United Arab Emirates, that often do not have access to data."
In November, Brazil filed a formal proposal at the UN for a legally binding global convention enshrining access to information on the environment, known as Principle 10. This move was followed by independent — though not necessarily conflicting — proposals from Chile and Jamaica calling for binding regional agreements on information access and sharing.
The Brazilian delegation is hoping to drum up support for its access proposal during the Abu Dhabi meeting, which includes talks at ministerial level.
This might be an uphill battle. "We know there are some member states who would oppose any [legally] binding outcomes to Rio+20," commented Jeremy Wates of the European Environment Bureau, a federation of over 140 citizens' organisations.
But Brazil appears ready to stake its international reputation on its push for an access convention, as Carmargo made it clear Brazil wanted to take the lead on this and other environmental issues.
"Developing countries like Brazil and the [United Arab] Emirates are looking for a new role in world affairs - and why not by way of sustainability?" she said.
Lalanath de Silva, director of the Access Initiative at the World Resources Institute, who chaired one of the expert discussions at the conference, told the meeting there had been “a chorus of voices" around Principle 10.
"It is time that governments came to agreement and laid the foundations and legal infrastructures for access to information," he said.
Jack Dangermond, president of the US-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, told the opening session that tools that make it easy for citizens to visualise data on maps were revolutionising the way the world used and understood information.
"Geospatial information will be a new language, a new nervous system for our planet," he said.
The new kind of geospatial infrastructure that was emerging supported conservation, planning, disaster mitigation and education, he said. The challenge was to migrate existing and future data to accessible systems, for the benefit of all.
During the day’s discussions, several experts argued that government action on open data was lagging behind technological progress and that access to data was beginning to become more important than the data itself.
There are many new information platforms but "it does not necessarily mean that people can access information," said Lucy Wariuingi of the African Conservation Centre in Kenya.