Data For Sustainability

Rather than just being used for business, data can help save the planet


Regardless of terrorist threats, financial meltdowns or data theft, the biggest single threat that the world currently faces is global warming and diminishing resources. If sea levels rise and force more people onto less land, potentially kill millions and wipe out entire species, the prospect of losing a few dollars as the stock market crashes seems mild.

In the same way that data has been used to help stabilize stock markets and improve business performance, it also has a profound impact on how we can create a more sustainable world. This use comes from the most basic local elements through to the most complex nationwide campaigns.

A prime example of data being used to promote sustainability comes from smart thermostats that are becoming increasingly popular in regular households. Berg Insight recently released a report showing that the number of smart thermostats sold in 2014 grew by 105% in North America and Europe. This represents significant energy savings, with Nest's own test showing the their thermostats saved 10-12% on heating and 15% on cooling on average. With 2015 likely to have seen significant growth again, the savings that these connected devices represent will have a significant impact on overall sustainability targets. They work by collecting data on optimum temperatures, when people are in the house and the best ways in which energy can be saved, meaning that energy is saved in the smallest possible level.

However, data also has far larger uses for increasing sustainability throughout the world, with elements like farming being revolutionized through their adoption of data. By using detailed GPS data and analyzing soil and seed placement, farmers have found that they can save 15% on seed, fertilizer and chemicals, reduce water use by 50% and perhaps most importantly, increase yield by 16%. It is something that has been recognized and invested in by agricultural giant Monsanto, who bought several data analytics companies between 2012-2014 to help support a more data driven approach.

We can also use data to see the effect that businesses are having on sustainability through new and cheaper sensors. It is important as estimates predict that around 75% of New York's carbon footprint comes from building use. It has already had a significant impact in Washington, where the Ronald Reagan building has adopted a data driven energy approach. Using new software and sensors they saved $13 million annually, which is about a 90% saving, purely in evaluation costs. The data even showed that two fans were being turned on at full strength unnecessarily and the air conditioning was slightly too high and once amended these two elements saved around $800,000 in one year.

We need to use every weapon at our disposal to combat the impact of global warming and wastage and data seems to be at the heart of this. The use cases are almost endless too, with satellite imagery combined with image recognition it is possible to identify poorly insulated buildings for instance. It can even be used to track the effect that it has on a larger scale, through tracking ice retreat in the arctic or deforestation in Brazil additional tactics can be taken to halt this.

Data is key to showing the scale of the problem, identifying how to solve it and directing the best courses of action. If we use it to its full potential, it will give us the best chance of slowing down global warming and living in a more sustainable world. 

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