How open climate data can improve community resilience against climate change

Read how releasing open data supports the federal government's goal of improving community resilience against climate change and primes the pump for meaningful reuse by tech giants.

Track for Hurricane Sandy
 Image: William Putman, NASA/Goddard

In August 2010, I wondered whether climate data could be a change agent, striking a hopeful tone. Climate data gathered and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) "could spur better decisions and a more informed society," I proposed.

In February 2010 the Obama administration proposed a climate service that would publish climate data in the same way that NOAA provides weather information. The data would be collected by satellites focused upon Earth's surface insteads of the stars, and published at, a "climate services portal" that launched that year.

I'm not at all convinced that or the data on it has made a significant impact upon public opinion or attitudes about climate change or has improved understanding of the underlying science.

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans believe that the Earth is getting warmer. There is, however, a significant partisan gap with respect to whether human activity is the cause of that change, with just 44% of American adults telling Pew that they support that position.

 Image: Pew Research Center

To say that's out of step with scientific consensus on global warming would be a gross understatement, with some 97% of climate scientists supporting the theory that human activity is behind climate change. Over the past year, that consensus in peer-reviewed science journals is even clearer, with just one author amongst 9,136 who contributed 2,259 articles dissenting. Accordingly, the US Department of Defense has drawn up a climate change adaption roadmap (PDF).


In March 2014, the world's largest scientific society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) made a rare intervention into a public policy debate when it released "What We Know," an 18-page report and website intended to raise public awareness of global warming, warn of risks, and urge action to manage the resulting risks.

Years after seeing go live, I can't help but be somewhat chastened by my past optimism about the impact of any single website on public opinion. After all, while politics, ideology, and education all clearly matter to what people believe, it also appears that public attitudes may be at the mercy of the weather: what people see outside of their window heavily influences their thinking.

I don't think I'm alone in doubting the efficacy of a new website, given historic lows in trust in US government, the aforementioned divide on this issue, and the damage to the Obama administration's reputation on technology after the troubled launch of in October 2013.

Such attitudes could lead the general public to read headlines last week about the White House introducing a new climate data website and wonder why it would matter to the larger debate, much less humanity's ability to adapt to significant changes in the environment. Can the White House really "battle climate change" with yet another "new website?"

There are already tremendous websites focused on explaining climate change and the science behind it to the general public, backed up with reams of scientific data, research, and analysis, including NASA's climate site, NOAA's climate site, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and RealClimate.

Given all of that context, why should anyone think the Climate Data Initiative will be any different?

Put simply, this is about web services, not websites. It's about making huge amounts of archived open government data available to humanity, from satellites to the next generation of sensors in city buses. It's about encouraging the biggest tech companies in the world to use the data in their professional and consumer-facing services, not publicizing a .gov website.

How? First, start by recounting a few key facts: the White House and General Services Agency launched a new climate data community at a subdomain of, not a new website.

This makes a lot of sense, as does publicizing it. Climate data is distributed across multiple agencies and isn't always clearly labeled or highlighted. aggregates government data from across agencies and provides tools to analyze it, maps to visualize it, resources to learn more, and challenges to encourage third-party developers to use the data. So far, there doesn't appear to be new data among the 83 datasets, but the administration indicates that more is coming.

As I reported last week, the Obama administration launched this effort to increase community resilience against climate change with the commitments from some of the biggest US tech companies in the world, including Google, Microsoft, Esri, and Intel, to apply the data in their various software platforms and tools. The World Bank also published an excellent new field guide for the "Open Data for Resilience Initiative" to scale around the globe. (Disclosure: I was consulted during the research behind its production.)

"The reduction of disaster risk must be heavily embedded in all of our development efforts," said Rachel Kyte, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, speaking at the White House. "We must move from a culture of response to a culture of preparation and resilience. Open and transparent data provides the basis for dialogue and political discussion."

Second, the launch includes universities, nonprofits, and a long roster of technology companies working with the federal government. While the involvement of Microsoft Research, Intel, and Google got a lot of coverage by technology media, along with "the cloud" and "big data," the stories and jargon may obscure what's happening: the online publication of vast amounts of data collected by the US federal government about the Earth's climate, for humanity to use to understand how the planet is changing.

On that count, it's worth noting that Google will donate one petabyte of storage to host climate data and 50 million hours of processing time on the Google Earth Engine. If you aren't familiar with Earth Engine, head over to Time Lapse and see what 30+ years of government satellite data looks like, visualized over time.

The data that powers the Earth Engine comes from the 40+ years of Landsat satellite collections (USGS/NASA) has been used to power an interactive timelapse of the planet from 1984-2012, the first high-resolution global map of deforestation, and a deforestation alert system.

What really matters, in other words, is the government data that the Obama administration is releasing, not a new website or section of one.

This isn't just another effort to publish government data online and stand up a new .gov to promote it, hoping that some magic will take place online to transform it into insight. While there's clearly private sector demand for climate data, as evidenced by the success of the Climate Corporation in digging in government data dirt or MapBox and satellite data, the political will to release more of it for reuse is a welcome addition.

By priming the pump for the climate data's reuse by these technology giants, the thinking goes, the costs of digitization, structuring, publication, and hosting are being borne by private sector companies, which have an incentive to do so given the market opportunities for their products. Doing so serves the government's much broader goal of improving the resilience of communities affected by changes in the climate and the understanding of the public.

Opening up government data for private sector innovation isn't far from a new or unproven idea, as the history of how weather data or the history of global positioning system (GPS) data highlights. More recently, open health data shows similar promise, along with other sectors. McKinsey estimates that open data could add more than $3 trillion dollars in economic value annually. That research supports the efforts the Obama administration has made to open government data to be cataloged and published for use in a broader economy.

While it's possible to describe the White House publicizing scientific data that shows decades of changes to the Earth's surfaces as a "crowdsourcing campaign to prove climate change problems," that's not what I took away from the climate announcement. For one, the White House is clear in its public assessment of the issue.

"Climate change is a monumental economic and security challenge," said White House advisor John Podesta, speaking at the White House this week. "It's real, driven by human activity and happening now."

For another, it would be a mistake to frame this week's events in purely political terms, though naturally that's what some outlets did. This is not simply another effort to convince the public that the Earth's climate is changing, or that the activity of humans are responsible for that shift, but to provide the means for communities to measure risk and start making resource allocations to mitigate it. Maps and data visualizations of projected changes in water levels, desertification, and deforestation are powerful tools for teaching and projection. Such tools can also be used by emergency managers before, during, and after severe weather events.

 Image: Australian Government and the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information

As I've written elsewhere, new open government data releases and application programming interfaces (APIs) to distribute them are quickly becoming fundamental public infrastructure for digital government in the 21st century. Increasingly, government data look like public goods, substantially enabled and extended by the private sector. Some close observers have positied to me that such data releases are an example of the private-collective model of innovation, a concept Eric von Hippel and Georg von Krogh coined in 2003, where the costs of getting the data out are borne by the private sector. With enough investment to lower the cost of access to such data, the value derived for the public may mirror that of open source software.

The role of NOAA is not only to gather data but to transform it into actionable information, or "environmental intelligence," said Kathryn Sullivan, under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, this past week, at the White House.

Climate data about wind, rain, and snow gives the heads of state and households the foresight to look, think, and analyze ahead of time, she observed. NOAA collects 20 terabytes every day of such data, about 2 terabytes of which are published as "feedstock," she said, creating value and insight at Esri, the Weather Channel, and many other organizations.

"Those two terabytes are feedstock," said Sullivan. "Imagine if we can get the other 18 through the door."

Also see

White House attacks climate change with hackathons, crowdsourcing, and big data


Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.



It must be your first time around here.

Don't you see the correlation between all the negative Posters?

They are all long-time senior members of the same "I don't believe it even if it is happening" club.

I am surprised they didn't bring out the "socialism is to blame for everything" argument this time around.

Well, perhaps in the next story then!

Rann Xeroxx
Rann Xeroxx

Problem with your chart there is that data has been "corrected" from the raw data.  Around the 1950's is considered to be the point at which human produced CO2 was created in such mass as to be the start of AGW.

So for a warmest, you want the temp before 1950 to be colder and after 1950 to be warmer.  If the raw data does not reflect a good enough change, then "correct" it as it is obviously wrong...


This one quote tells me all I need to know:

 "After all, while politics, ideology, and education all clearly matter to what people believe, it also appears that public attitudes may be at the mercy of the weather: what people see outside of their window heavily influences their thinking."

Translation: You can't rely on your senses; we must tell you what to think.

I mean, you just can't make this up! People like our author actually believe this stuff!

I've been around enough to remember Time Magazine's 1978 Ice Age cover and all the scientists telling us we were all going to freeze to death. And after the coldest winter in 100 years, it ain't warming up.

If I'm wearing a sweatshirt in August in the American Midwest, it's colder. If I stand on a Lake Erie beach in March, and for the first time ever see nothing but ice, as far as the eye can see, it's colder. If I pay $1600 more this winter to heat our old farmhouse, it's colder.

I can read all about record-breaking cold all over the world. And now that we have morphed from "global warming" to "climate change" because it's now obvious to everyone that it's not warming up, I have people now telling me I'm a "climate change denier"?

Well, actually, I believe in "climate change", I'm living it every day. And if too much greenhouse gases caused global warming, then doesn't it follow that right now we ought to be furiously pumping as much CO2 into the atmosphere as possible to try to warm things up?

I think I'll stop trying to telecommute, and do my part by using my car more. Time to drive to work! Bye!


There is a need to enhance our instruments so that it gives a better forecasting for upcoming disasters.I think, it is a great breakthrough for human kind.


This is a one-sided argument, and it never even touched on the reason for the skepticism from the other side of the argument.  

This one-sided presentation is the reason for people being so skeptical.  Government and "consensus science" are not very believable.  Consensus science is not even science. 


@fo128 I've been writing here since January and reading comments every since, so I'm still getting the lay of the land.


@rpettrey  The point of the column was more that releasing more climate data to the public, including satellite images of the Earth, could enable more people to look at shifts in temperature, sea level, deforestation, air pollution, salination, and a host of other changes that are occurring around the globe. Such views and maps can enable people to decide for themselves whether something is happening or not. 

The quote you pulled is based upon research from Columbia University that reflects your own perspective: people's attitudes towards the issue are heavily influenced by the climate they are experiencing, not the preponderance of scientific literature or expert opinion. This dynamic is present elsewhere in society, where someone may hold that since they haven't personally experienced a given event, it does not exist, whether it's racism, bad service or corruption. That's one reason that scientists (and the people who report on their work) look at the size of study and how representative of a given population it might be. One especially cold year experienced by people in the Midwest doesn't invalidate a shift over centuries or millennia, just a one especially hot year wouldn't confirm anthropogenic climate change in of itself.   


@adornoe  Correct: "consensus science" is not science: peer-reviewed research is. As referenced in the column, Dr. James Powell, a geochemist and 12-year member of the National Science Board, has done a survey of thepeer-reviewed literature on climate change. Since I submitted it, Dr. Powell had updated the review, finding that out of the 10,885 peer-reviewed scientific papers published on climate change in all of 2013, only two papers reject human-caused climate change. Public opinion may see two sides to the issue but every scientists I've ever spoken with, interviewed or read lines is clear: the planet is warming, and activity by humans is a major contributing factor. As to why there is skepticism regarding that body of scientific research, I would direct you to the politics and business interests surrounding the issue. I'd also note skepticism about the theory of evolution, though that is even more grounded in evidence.


@adornoe This is just more "Progressive" Democrat Disinformation, pure & simple and I totally agree with your posting. It never was about "Global Warming", now known as "Climate Change" as it was about Wealth Redistribution. Maurice Strong was at the root of this BS; check him out and his Socialist Policies.


@digiphile @adornoeThe problem with "peer reviewed" is that, the reviews are done by people who think alike, IOW, their "peers", where those peers hang out together and think alike and have the same agenda.

Stop the nonsense!

The credibility of the junk science is completely shot, except with the "consensus scientists".   

When a science is supported by a political agenda, it ceases to be science, especially when the global warming "scientists" continue making the claim that "the science is settled".  Ain't no such thing as settled science, and global warming is shoddy science, at best. 


@digiphile @adornoe

More Disinformation by digiphile; The IPCC must love you.


@adornoe @digiphile The "agenda" of scientists reviewing a given paper is to determine whether the methodology used to research a subject is sound, the experiment was conducted properly, the results are accurate and replicable, and the conclusion is factual, based upon the study and the existing body of scientific research. We know the theories of gravity or evolution or electromagnetism are factual because they are based upon more than opinion or political views: they are based upon a body of evidence and experiments that goes back centuries. 

Yes, scientists, like other humans, have political views, including in areas where they do research, from genomics to engineering to molecular genomics. None matter much when they seek to publish their work in a scientific journal, where the strength of the work itself matters, nor an imagined shared agenda where scientists hang out in a secret clubhouse and collude to mislead the public. If someone has a replicable experiment that produces data or evidence that casts doubt upon a given body of study, he or she can put it forward -- but it will need to hold water, so to speak, when scrutinized.

When 99.99% of peer-reviewed scientific papers published in the last year support a given theory, I might hypothesize that people who refuse to believe in the findings are themselves expressing a political view, as opposed to a scientific one. The survey I cited in this column accurately describes that phenomenon.

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