Summary: The issue of climate change has is worsening every year and yet we have largely failed to slow or stop the warming of the planet in any tangible way. Big data analytics, as the name suggests, provides the ability to process huge data sets in a way that human minds and even traditional super computers cannot. Incredibly complex systems, like our climate, are the ideal proving grounds for big data engines to show why they have been so hyped in recent years. Decades, even centuries, of data collected from weather stations, ice cores, satellites, but also data on human behavior and electricity consumption trends could be fed into such programs to bring about unprecedented levels of understanding.
Albert Einstein reportedly once said; “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution”. In the 63 years since the famous mathematician’s death, the issue of climate change continues to worsen, but instead of trying to understand the problem we have largely failed to slow or stop the warming of the planet in any tangible way.
The lack of understanding surrounding the problem of climate change is not for a lack of trying. Experts from a variety of different fields have been tackling the problem for decades, albeit with relatively limited funding and strong opposition. The issue, it seems, is that we collect masses of data but we do not have the capacity to transform that information into actionable intelligence. As we enter “the data age,” however, the emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) may offer us, and our environment, a glimmer of hope.
Big data analytics, as the name suggests, provides the ability to process huge data sets in a way that human minds and even traditional super computers cannot. Incredibly complex systems, like our climate, are the ideal proving grounds for big data engines to show why they have been so hyped in recent years. Decades, even centuries, of data collected from weather stations, ice cores, satellites, but also data on human behavior and electricity consumption trends could be fed into such programs to bring about unprecedented levels of understanding. As Nathan Sykes, Business technology expert and founder and editor of Finding an Outlet explains, “the first step to finding a solution for any problem, big or small, is understanding as much about it as humanly possible. We need a thorough grasp of climate change, what’s happening to our planet and what’s causing the most significant environmental changes. More importantly, we need to understand how the world today is different from the world of yesterday, and how we can use that information to predict the state of the world tomorrow.”
As Global Pulse explains; “The impacts of climate change are rapidly accelerating, and there is an urgent need for demonstrably effective solutions. Simultaneously, a global “data revolution” is unfolding around the world. Analyzing privacy-protected digital data – such as mobile data or bank card transactions – can provide valuable insights into human behavior patterns and climate risk.”
“As data sources explode, as well as the technologies they enable, it may become feasible in the next 10 years to dramatically reduce CO2 [emissions],” says futurist Gerd Leonhard. In fact, “we may soon be generating enough useable data about human activity to pretty much solve the problem of climate change,” he continued.
By leveraging big data, new approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation can be put in place. For example, as a consortium, NASA, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative are working to gather, analyse and share data in order to help form a solution strategy. One of the most innovative methods they are using is tracking social media public attention on environmental topics to help devise a strategy that drives action and will facilitate behavioural change.
One such way of doing this is by inspiring innovators to come up with a solution, crowd-sourcing ideas to find the best way forward. As such initiatives such as the Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity which provide an open platform for global innovators or ‘makers’ to submit their ideas to address challenges, such as climate change, in the form of a competition. The winner will secure funding to commercialise the idea, so it can be deployed on a mass scale and result in a tangible difference to communities across the world.
Global Pulse is running a similar initiative. Last year, first prize of the challenge went to a research project led by the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change. They used big data to propose electromobility improvements using 50 million data entries from Waze and the Google Popular Times’ data base. They analysed the city’s social and mobility patterns to suggest optimised electromobility routes, as well as an infrastructure development plans to carry them out. The 97 semi-finalists included a multitude of different research projects from different environmental fields and from the world.
Technology and the environment have not always seen eye to eye, in fact the technological revolution that lead to industrialisation is probably the most significant moment in rise of human induced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Today, however, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution - the age of data -technology is moving from villain to savior in the story of climate change, offering a way to understand the world around us. As Einstein suggested, only with a better understanding can we hope to find effective solutions to save the world.
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