Eye on Earth Summit: Enabling conditions – using data to accomplish the 2030 SDG agenda

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Jim Toomey, author of the comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” opened day three with tips on how to get the words climate change as many google search hits as Taylor Swift.

What are enabling conditions? Agar in a petri dish help grow bacteria to create cultures for studying microbes; using technology enables one to date in a pool wider than your social circle; small grants help fund the exploration of a big idea; learning Spanish not by classroom, but by living in Mexico helps facilitate faster learning; zoning policies requiring low-income housing in cities enables access and diversity. These are but a few examples of enabling conditions that can be found across multiple disciplines, industries and governments. Mae Jemison on day two quoted the phrase, “The future doesn’t just happen – it’s made.” The goal of day three was to explore the enabling conditions needed to make the future of creating and turning data into reliable environmental and societal information for decision-making.

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Inger Anderson of IUCN, and a panel of distinguished experts on creating enabling conditions.

In the morning, Inger Andersen, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), provided an estimate of $5 million a year to maintain the IUCN Redlist, the canonical database for the state of the world’s endangered species. This amount is “peanuts” compared to other data collection initiatives, according to Andersen, who emphasized this by comparing it to the U.S. census, which spends $13 billion every 10 years to understand demographics. However, what’s consistently undervalued are the 300 years’ worth of volunteer time that goes into updating that database. According to Anderson, the biggest word of caution moving forward is to keep the spirit of volunteerism alive by providing contributors with credit. This is not only the code of ethics in science and writing, but it’s also basic human decency: Give credit where it’s due, and the 300 years of volunteer time will continue to grow to 600 years and beyond as the world becomes more connected.

Enabling condition: give citizen scientists credit where it’s due and see an increase in volunteer time.

Enrico Giovannini, an economist and statistician and member of the Club of Rome, called for a “single state-of-the-art system that should serve [the] international community and countries [with the goal of] efficiency and effectiveness.” In addition, Giovannini stated we should place pressure on the private sector to share their data. This could include national policies which require private companies operating in their country to disclose all data collected about their resources (natural resources, demographic, economic). Giovannini ended with a bold statement, for countries to write the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their constitution. While that is a tall order — in the United States, there have been only 27 amendments to the Constitution in 226 years — what might be a more digestible step is to incorporate them into the missions of governmental and non-governmental organizations that are affiliated with one of the 17 goals.UN Sustainable Development Goals icons

Enabling conditions: Prevent duplication through collaboration, pressure private companies to share data while respecting private personal information and build the SDGs into governance frameworks.

Following the opening plenary was a panel on the “Polices, partnerships and open data for sustainable development,” moderated by Willian Sontag, initiatives manager from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs. One notable part of this presentation was the big data ecosystem workshops, led by CODATA in developing countries to increase best practices and therefore increase accuracy of data.

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ConservationDrones.org is a aggregate of information on people using drones to collect data for conservation.
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The second-largest population of dugongs can be found in the UAE, a cross between a dolphin and a manatee.

The afternoon panels focused on cutting-edge technology and stories from the “feet in the field,” the people collecting the data or managing the volunteers who collect that data that make its way down the information pipeline. The feet in the field representatives all emphasized the tremendous power of technology for turning data into information quickly in order to act on priority conservation areas. However, Liam Pin Koh of conservationdrones.org said it best, in that technology enables us to collect better data faster, but the main goals are to acquire the data in any way possible.

 

Enabling condition: don’t rely solely on technology, continue to use all methods of data collection (oral, social, manual), but make an extra effort to digitize them and make them accessible to all.

Ayesha Yousef Al Biooshi of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency shared methods  of studying dugongs, of which the UAE is home to the second-largest population. The Conservation Leadership Programme advertised its capacity-building program for young, aspiring conservation leaders, and lastly, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund shared stories from their grantees. The fund provides small grants to young ecologists, biologists and conservation leaders to collect valuable data for their academic work.

Moving Forward

The importance of follow-ups from this conference will be revealed in the years to come, as governments begin to set up their monitoring and reporting systems of the SDGs. Delegates from the Eye on Earth Summit will continue to tackle the problems of harmonizing data demand, supply and enabling conditions. Each leader from the founding five organizations stated in the final panel their dedication to leveraging their own communities for generating information in tandem with each other in order to monitor the SDGs.

Jacqueline McGlade of UNEP demoed the organization’s web intelligence platform for tracking the SDGs, UNEP Live, which aggregates media stories about individual countries and their environmental initiatives among other environmental data, like citizen science. The media stories are particularly relevant because, as McGlade noted, “Governments are driven by what is written about them.” If that’s so, then the Eye on Earth Alliance, with its amazing leaders, will hopefully inspire governments as news gets out about this incredible Alliance.

One suggestion moving forward for the next Eye on Earth Summit is to emphasize the process of collaboration. The convening reason for this Alliance is based on the problem of “oceans of data but only drops of information” and executing collaboration processes is the solution to building a bridge. Because of this, all presenters should spend at minimum one minute on how they work with other stakeholders to create a system of information for environmental and societal indicators. That way, other organizations can learn from each other about best practices for collaboration.

I’ll leave readers with a thought from one of my favorite authors, Chimanadache Nigamonzi Adichie, about the “danger of a single story.” When we believe whole-heartedly in one single story, we lose focus and disregard the possibility of other stories that describe the same thing. By bringing together organizations and individuals who care about the same thing – equitable access for all to data to inform decision-making – but may approach it differently, we are able to listen to everyone’s story and leverage the information that they share.


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I want to thank the organizers of the Eye on Earth Blogging Competition for this unique and amazing opportunity. While you might not have seen them, the media team are a crucial component to this Alliance, acting as the megaphone for communicating to the world what happened over the past three days.

I would also like to thank the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, the United Nations Environment Program, GEO, IUCN and the World Resources Institute for their visionary leadership in bringing together critical stakeholders. May this Alliance continue to be a driving force in equitable and reliable information-sharing in the age of meeting the SDGs by 2030.

Lastly, I will share my pledge: As a citizen science researcher with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington, D.C., our organization strives to be a bridge between academia and policy, informing people on matters of international importance with reliable and actionable information. I have the incredible privilege to take what I learned here and bring it back to the United States and share with academics, policymakers and relevant organizations. I look forward to signing up my organization as a member of the Eye on Earth Alliance.

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