Tackling the data gaps that could scupper the green economy

Environmental data can help to improve sustainable food production Copyright: Flickr/CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

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Yojana Sharma analyses the work of a four-day meeting on access to data and information that will feed into next year’s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.

The information is out there. The data that would enable sound decisions on the environment and sustainable development exists in databases, repositories and desk drawers. Yet often it is not tapped, scientifically analysed, communicated or used for the benefit of the environment and the people who depend on it.

“By some estimates the amount of data held in the world is 315 times the number of grains of sand and continuing to grow,” Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December 2011).

“Managing, processing and making these volumes of data available in user-friendly ways and in the service of sustainable development is one of the global challenges of, and one of the issues for, Eye on Earth, and a key in assisting Rio+20 [the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil next June],” he said.

Environmental and societal data is the real underutilised resource globally: that was the message of the four-day Abu Dhabi meeting, which brought together over 1,000 delegates including ministers, officials including those from the UN and World Bank, speakers from NGOs, the financial sector, companies such as Google and Microsoft, the geospatial industry and others.

“We are measuring virtually everything that changes and moves. We’re able to handle big data sets like we’ve never been able to before,” said Jack Dangermond, CEO of the US-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, referring to technologies such as computer platforms in the “cloud” and distributed processing. “And these computers are being connected,” he said.

The measuring and analysis is aimed at filling gaps in the data and improving access to environmental information and its use, whether the information is technical, statistical, sociological or communicated orally by indigenous people.

A pressing need to develop networks to exchange vital information on the global ecosystem is also recognised. That information is stored in individual databases, as environmental issues do not respect geographical boundaries. But much of it may be inaccessible.

Access to existing data

For sound global environmental decision-making, gaining access to existing data is more important than developing new technologies, said Harlan Onsrud, a research scientist with the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis in the US and co-chair of the conference’s working group on technical infrastructure.

Rand Knight, senior vice president of technology consultants Critigen, emphasised that the data exists and so does the technology to access it, even for poorer countries, and it is getting cheaper. No one needs to wait for new tools, he added.

Several speakers pointed out that what was lacking was a vision on how to access and use the information, and as always, the political will.

“Technology is only a small piece, we need much more,” said Dangermond. “We need open sharing policies to make this work, we need a global plan.“

Former US president Bill Clinton fired up the conference with his eloquent point that lack of data was often used as an excuse for not taking environmental action. There was no need for more data to understand the value of improving efficiency, reducing green house gas emissions or recycling, Clinton said.

It was a hopeful message. But there is much work to do to remove the barriers standing in the way of good data gathering and sharing, the conference heard.

Special initiatives

Delegates focussed on specific areas, dubbed ‘special initiatives’. Nine initiatives were chosen from a list of almost 50 for discussion during the meeting. They included sustainable cities, disaster management and green finance. Four of the initiatives — Eye on Water, Eye on Biodiversity, Eye on Oceans and Blue Carbon, and Network of Networks — were singled out for further development at the end of the conference.

They were chosen to “further the Eye on Earth mission and vision,” said Cathrine Armour, programme manager for the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, which organised the Abu Dhabi meeting with UNEP.

The hurdles in the way of data collection and access are amply illustrated by the tasks faced by the chosen initiatives. For example, knowledge of the oceans is poor.

“Only five per cent of the oceans have been explored, the rest is less mapped. Although we have generated maps from satellites they do now reflect what is below [the surface],” said oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

Peter Gilruth, director of UNEP’s division of early warning and assessment, pointed out the huge gaps in information “not only about the status of biodiversity but also the economic cost of losing biodiversity on a local, national, regional or global scale”.

On water scarcity, public awareness is a problem. At the policy level, sharing water data, even within the same country can be a sticky issue and can lead to poor decisions, the working group on water heard.

Water data is often kept secret by countries for geopolitical reasons, but information could help solve rather than exacerbate water conflicts, according to Faris Sayegh, senior consultant at GPCGIS, a global network of information professionals.

Michael Wilson, programme officer at UNEP, told the conference the Eye on Water special initiative would focus on the specific data needed to improve transnational management of water, hopefully helping to break down some of the barriers for water-sharing, for the benefit of many.

The Network of Networks initiative seeks to link diverse data networks by the use of common standards and by enabling individual networks to communicate with each other. This was an overarching theme of the meeting, but it may also be the hardest to achieve, with the challenge being how to keep networks together. The elephant in the room was the private sector. Will companies be willing to share their own data within a network, or will it be a one-way street of data from public to private?

“We must establish partnerships so that we can tap into commercial data and information sources to bridge data gaps,” said Sha Zukang, UN under-secretary-general, who is responsible for overseeing Rio+20.

Access for All

Other special initiatives that will continue to be developed in the wake of the Eye on Earth Summit include Resilient Cities, Environmental Education and Access for All, aimed at making environmental data available for all citizens.

Access for All had passionate advocates among conference delegates, notably Lalanath de Silva, head of the US-based World Resources Institute’s access campaign formally called The Access Initiative (TAI).

“The Access for All initiative has allowed us to come together and build a platform,” he said. “It is a special initiative that is going to go from strength to strength in the future.”

Civil society organisations met the day before the Abu Dhabi meeting to prepare their own input to the Eye on Earth Declaration, an outcome which will be fed into Rio+20. Hence the support for Brazil’s call for negotiations at Rio+20 on a global convention of Principle 10 on access to data, and the inclusion of access in the Eye on Earth Summit Declaration.

De Silva stressed that human networks are at least as important as the technological networks involved. Public involvement and public access to environmental data and information is crucial, he said. But it is a political minefield, with some countries likely to oppose any mention of access to data as a “right” and others likely to resist any legally binding convention.

Those battles are likely to be fought elsewhere. For now, the Abu Dhabi meeting has deposited its Eye on Earth Declaration with the Rio conference process, hoping it will make the agenda of Rio+20. This was seen as one of the main successes of the meeting.

Now all eyes are on Rio+20 and preparations for June. That meeting may well take up the suggestion of creating “sustainable development goals” modelled on the Millennium Development Goals. If so, government agencies would need substantial information in order to measure sustainability and monitor changes on the road to a green economy.

The glaring gaps in environmental and societal data could well scupper the proper functioning of a green economy, says Gilruth. That, he says, is what makes the Eye on Earth Summit’s goals even more urgent.