Eye on Earth Summit: Data Demand – from whom and for what?

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H.E. Anwar Gargash the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs addresses the opening plenary

The Eye on Earth does not disappoint, with over 600 delegates representing different sectors of the information infrastructure. The first day of the summit was filled with where the data is needed most, from whom and best practices. However its worth noting, the irony of a summit focused on reinventing the information pipeline is that there is an incredible amount of information on information, you could almost say a meta-information pipeline. 


Opening Plenary: Aspirations and New Directions

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H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency

There is no doubt, the Eye on Earth Summit has focused at least one eye on citizen science as a way to merge civil society, government and business to generate crucial environmental data across local, regional and global scales for informed decision-making. The opening plenary was graced by leaders from the United Arab Emirates such as, H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency and H.E. Anwar Gargash the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs followed by leaders from the Global Environment Facility, Global Footprint Network, Planet Labs and closed with a moving address from Pierre-Yves Cousteau on the future of oceans.  

Each speaker, in one way or another, mentioned citizen science as a key component to the data infrastructure that will inform environmental decision making and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals. Costeau announced the launch of the Hermes Project which aims to literally take the temperature of the ocean using the dive computers on scuba divers to create a dynamic data stream in real time of the ocean temperature, complimenting existing satellite and buoy data.  Strategic investments by the Emirate government demonstrated their commitment to building robust data platforms that incorporate the physical, social and economic indicators for decision-making. Examples of this are the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, a comprehensive project monitoring the UAE’s environmental indicators with a component focused on civic society input.

Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, provided an metaphor comparing the economy to piloting a plane, in which pilots have protocols, sensors and fuel indicators that ensure they have everything they need to take off and land without incident. Quite like a plane, our economy needs these sensors and fuel indicators if we are to remain in balance between our biocapacity (natural resources) and our ecological footprint (use of natural resources) – of which Global Footprint Network aims to provide the indictors. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sensors on a plane that provide the pilot with information that she can use to inform her action.  The good news? With mobile phone proliferation we have more than 7 billion sensors in every corner of the earth to provide us with a part of the information puzzle we need for accurate sustainable development.

A real success story was Robbie Shingler of Planet Labs, who brought the public good ethic of NASA’s open data and innovation in space to his company Planet Labs in the effort to democratize access to real-time geospatial data at unprecedented scales. To date they’ve launched 101 satellites, developed an autonomous work flow and created substantially smaller satellites which allows for incredible scalability. Shingler ended with announcing Planet Lab’s commitment of $60 million US dollars to create the first open geospatial country, stay tuned as they decide which country to partner with for this initiative.

Interspersed throughout the talks were captivating and emoting videos that expressed themes of shared responsibility, closing the data gap and equipping policymakers and decision makers with high quality and real-time data. 

Perhaps the talk that reframed the information paradigm the best was Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, who began with an image of the pale blue dot 40 years ago and our united realization that we live on such a fragile planet. Steiner noted that the age of understanding the environment as an add on is antiquated and being replaced with an understanding of the environment as the foundation for our survival. This reinvention of our economic infrastructure, with the environment as our foundation, will not come easily, but Steiner closed with this quote: “the best way to make dreams come true is to wake up” and the Eye on Earth is that wake up call.


Data for Policy Making

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A demonstration of relational networks, a proof of concept for GNON

The day continued with incredible panels which ranged from “Donors demand for data”, “Measuring progress of sustainable development goals” and “Building knowledge to provide for healthy lives.” The “Data for policy making” panel provided fascinating insight on what policy makers want and need in terms of quality and actionable data in order to make informed decisions. Marcos Silva, secretariat of CITES, highlighted a citizen science data quality learning opportunity through studying how local police departments, who are the intermediaries for citizens reporting illegal animal and plant trade, handle judgement, accuracy and relevancy of these reports. These police departments are adept at filtering and judging citizen provided data points and communicating it to coordinating agencies such as INTERPOL. A lot of lessons could be learned from studying the information pipeline of illegal species trade.

Another theme from the data for policy making panel was collaboration and coordination in funding frameworks. If we want to envision a sustainable and interoperable “Eye on the Earth” data infrastructure then we must ensure that nations are funding complementary data projects. Large investments must be made in data centers and servers (infrastructure), longevity and sustainability to detect trends and supporting researchers open data initiatives with a framework for creating machine-readable and interoperable platforms for sharing data. Lastly, in the international standards realm, Silva noted that we must ensure a strong public-private partnership because a data behemoth like Google could come along and push their own information standards which could be fundamentally incompatible with public datasets.

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Jaqeline McGlade, Chief Scientists United Nations Environment Program

After a long day of pitches, visualizations and catalyzing conversations Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist of UNEP and citizen science advocate, brought the day to a close at the gala dinner. McGlade presented the Eye on Earth winner of the Data Visualization challenge to Airscapes Singapore. Airscapes used citizen scientists, equipped with air quality sensors linked to their smartphones, to provide real-time AQ data to inform people of the healthiest transit routes in Singapore. The team plans to to expand to San Francisco and Beijing.

Its worth going back to Steiner’s metaphor of Eye on Earth as waking up from a dream. The dream is easy: a reliable, relevant and global network of environmental information accessible and digestible by all. But quite like an early morning alpine start, this dream will require getting rid of the snooze button and getting up. The Eye on Earth Summit is doing just that right now.

My excellent reporting team & UNEP’s data visualization sphere:

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