Can Big Data Save the Environment?

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.09.20 PMThis week on the PPGR we are talking Big Data in the lead up to this year’s Ford+SPPG Conference, an annual academic policy event between the SPPG and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Follow us on Twitter @FordSPPG  for the latest updates on the conference and interesting Big Data-related news articles.

Evan Brander

Big data analytics–the process of examining large data sets to find hidden trends–is often used in the business sector to target potential customers or optimize costs of production. The highly technical process is rarely connected to the natural world. Recently, however, a number of promising ventures have shown the potential for big data analytics to combat several threats facing the environment.

Big data is currently being used in a number of projects to protect animal species. A severe drought in California this winter dried up many of the waterways that migrating birds usually rely on, so the Nature Conservancy developed a plan to use big data to help. Large data sets with tens of thousands of observations on bird migration routes were used to plot the exact arrival time of birds in specific parts of the state. Once this information had been determined, the Nature Conservancy built “pop-up wetlands” along the migration route. The Conservancy provided payments to farmers to temporarily flood portions of their land at specific times to provide habitat for the migrating fowl.

Various big data applications have also been developed to increase people’s awareness of environmental problems in their areas and prompt them to change their behavior. Liu Chunlei developed a website called Danger Maps, which uses government, NGO, and user data to track major sources of pollution in China. Danger Maps has so far plotted the locations of over 6,000 pollution sources in China and is quickly expanding its list of known polluters. The crowd-mapping site has allowed Chinese citizens to track polluters in their own neighbourhoods and inform themselves about the quality of their surrounding environment. Liu has said he hopes that when citizens are aware of the pollution being released near their homes, they will be more likely to take action to prevent environmental degradation.

Perhaps the largest way in which big data is helping to improve the environment is by revealing ways to advance environmental sustainability. Many large companies have analyzed their data to determine ways to reduce emissions and lower costs of production. Last year, UPS developed software that calculates optimal delivery routes. This reduces the distance that drivers have to travel to deliver packages. The use of this software was estimated to have reduced fuel consumption by 1.5 million gallons and cut carbon emissions by 14,000 tonnes in one year. Several other firms have embraced sustainability big data analytics as a win-win solution for reducing costs and lessening their environmental burden.

Though all of these laudable projects show great promise for the use of big data in improving the environment, they have all been developed at a localized level or for a niche market. They are therefore unlikely to achieve large enough environmental benefits to significantly confront major ecological threats.

If similar data analytics programs were scaled up to an international or a sector-wide level, they may help to make significant progress on enhancing species protection, changing household behaviour, or reducing firms’ emissions. Government research-funding agencies should take a role in encouraging private sector and NGO-led projects that use data to improve the environment. Governments should also work with their existing data sets to find ways to reduce emissions and protect important habitat. Though it may not be a panacea, big data analytics has the potential to play a significant role in combating large threats facing the global environment.

Evan Brander is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He also holds a BA (Hons.) in History and Economics from Queen’s University. His interests include environmental policy and economic policy.

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