Big Data Is Improving Our View On Environmental Issues

How environmentalists are utilizing big data


Until about two decades ago, non-governmental and activist organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and Greenpeace were considered to be among our best sources of awareness with regard to the declining state of our ecosystems and natural resources. During the Dot-Com revolution of the late 20th century, data scientists began to make major contributions to help us understand more complex matters such as climate change, habitat loss and the need for sustainable development that is mindful of the environment.

These days, big data strategies are being applied to better understand our carbon footprint and the impact that humanity is having on Nature and on the future of our planet. Here are three examples of these strategies:

The Environmental Protection Agency and Data Science

In October 2016, the United States EPA formally announced its incursion into the world of big data by gaining membership into the National Consortium for Data Science, the foremost American organization related to the application of large data sets to improve all processes of life.

One of the initial big data projects that the EPA is currently working on is called the Stream Catchment dataset, which is mapping all watersheds and streams across the United States. The idea is to assess the condition of these important water sources. Another project is the Environmental Quality Index, which measures factors related to air, territory, water, structures, and demographic factors. In the near future, this index may be used to forecast public health issues such as the likelihood of premature birth.

Measuring Carbon Cycles

Many companies who specialize in big data business intelligence are finding solutions related to climate change. These solutions are not only being applied to the enterprise world; they are also being utilized to better understand how carbon cycles are affecting nature.

The Microsoft Madingley Model is a very ambitious Big Data and artificial intelligence project that essentially simulates life on Earth. The first data output from Madingley is a simulation of major events that are part of the carbon cycle such as deforestation, environmental pollution, and abusive commercial fishing practices. The goal is to one day be able to simulate the entire biosphere. Microsoft is taking the lead in this effort; however, the company's standing in the business world is attracting major corporate donors.

A carbon cycle is defined as the various processes that take place as organic and inert compounds are affected by carbon dioxide that is eventually released into the atmosphere.

The Big Data Climate Challenge

The United Nations has been one of the earliest adopters of big data, particularly with regard to climate change. In 2014, the UN established a Big Data Climate Challenge for the purpose of evaluating projects and proposals.

One of the most interesting projects that have emerged from this UN initiative is Global Forest Watch, a web-based application that provides interactive data tools essentially serving as online forestry charts. The Global Forest Watch project actually dates back to 1997; since then, environmentalists and researchers from the Congo Basin, Guyana, Canada, Chile, and Russia have utilized the project's data to base various conservation policies at the governmental level.

In the end, big data could be just what the doctor ordered with regards to our ongoing relationship with nature, which clearly needs to be improved. One major advantage of big data is that it can be quantified up or down to spread greater awareness. For example, a big data project presented by the Journal of Nature, Ecology, and Evolution looked into the carbon footprint of every component in your smartphone to come up with a very accurate figure of how much of a toll mobile devices take on the environment.


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