Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange shows how big data can impact climate change

Bloomberg's Data for Good Exchange event gave scientists and researchers a chance to show how they're using big data to save the environment.

How the UN uses technology to stem the tide of climate change

This week, data scientists, researchers and company representatives from across the globe came together for Bloomberg's Data for Good Exchange event in New York City, which showcased how data is being used to achieve the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The goals were developed in 2015 as an effort to push the world's nations to address critical issues affecting billions of people. Stakeholders in the event were hoping to show how improving data collection methods could change what problems we address and how we address them.

"The two critical areas that lack progress from the agenda are climate change and inequality," said Francesca Perucci, assistant director of the UN Statistics Division.

"[Climate change] is an area where we don't have a lot of data, but the little that we know is scary. Ocean acidity has increased by 26% since pre-industrial times," Perucci said.

SEE: The Internet of Wild Things: Technology and the battle against biodiversity loss and climate change (TechRepublic cover story) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

The event was split into three tracks that were centered around a major set of issues plaguing communities across the globe.

Part of the event focused exclusively on a wide variety of projects being undertaken to use new data collection methods to track, and help address, the effects of climate change on the world's oceans, forests and jungles.

Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and a keynote speaker at the event, used the evaporation of Lake Chad, in Africa, as an example of problems that could have been dealt with using data science.

"Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% over the last 40 years. Imagine what that means for people's lives. Imagine the trailer loads of fish that were traveling north to south, underpinning the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people. They've been replaced by empty roads, livelihoods lost and of course leading to increased poverty, instability and negative trends that we're seeing in the SDG report," she told the crowd at the event.

"It's a change that's happened incrementally, little by little. But looking at the patterns in data can show us the changes that are happening and show us how stark it can really be. Data can tell a story of these changes," she said.

For the rest of the day, representatives from government institutions, research groups and companies gave presentations detailing the ways their data was used to help handle critical environmental problems.

Groups such as Pelagic Data Systems and DataKind focused their efforts on specific issues like fisheries protection, building systems that allowed governments to stop people from fishing in illegal areas or at night.

SEE: How to build a successful data scientist career (free PDF) (TechRepublic Premium)

"There's a lot of opportunity to take these data streams and start cross-referencing them and using them in smart ways. Part of the challenge for this group is, how do we start taking all of this information that's available and using them in smarter ways to make things better," said Melissa Garren, CEO and chief scientist at Pelagic Data Systems.

"How can data streams be integrated in a way that is more useful for management, for industry, for community livelihoods and all the things that we are looking to tackle?" 

Some speakers noted that many organizations now had troves of data that they didn't know how to use, forcing them to hire consultants or advisers to sort through it all and make sense of the information. 

Many of the speakers throughout the day hammered home the idea that data scientists had to be more focused in their goals and have a deep understanding of the end-use before starting any project. 

"One of the first things that I told the conservancy was it would be interesting to know what problems you have," Data Scientist Fatima Koli told a workshop audience. Koli worked on an innovative project with New York's Natural Areas Conservancy using data to explore environmental conditions based on proximity to local parks. 

"As data scientists, sometimes we explore something interesting, but maybe it's just interesting, maybe it doesn't solve any problems an organization is working on," Koli said.

But data was having a noticeable effect on efforts to protect coral reefs. A team of researchers from digital data platform Mermaid explained the dire state of the world's coral reefs and its potential effects on the world economy.

More than 1 billion people rely on coral reefs for food, jobs and coastal protection. Scientists from Mermaid estimated that coral reefs are worth $350 billion in terms of economic impact and nearly 300 million people live within 30 kilometers of a coral reef. 

"We don't want to see coral reefs crash and we think we can improve coral reefs by having local scientists have better access to their data so they can advocate for the change they need with decisions makers. So that data-to-decision pipeline is what we're trying to speed up," said Emily Darling, PhD, an Associate Conservation Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"Mermaid is the first online and offline web platform specifically designed for coral reef monitoring data. Our goal is to collect, analyze and share faster with Mermaid. In essence, we want a stock market for coral reefs. We want the status and trends of coral reefs to be available in real time for decision makers," Darling said.

Platforms like Mermaid are integral to environmental efforts because of how time consuming data collection and organization are. The creators of the platform said one of their baseline measures was whether it was easier to use than Microsoft Excel, which they said added months onto the data collection process.

The need for speed was important because the environmental situation is deteriorating fast. Darling said half of all coral reefs are gone because of climate change and bad local management. If nothing is done to stop the current rate of loss, there will be no coral reefs left by 2050, she added. 

Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, said the time constraints and drastic environmental changes were forcing world leaders to make quick decisions about the economy. These quick decisions, she said, could only be made with sound data that showed you the path to change.
"Farmers are planting crops based on data that predates the climate crisis. That means they're not getting data on weather, on soil quality, things that are the bread and butter of their livelihoods," she said. "We need all of you to look out of the front window and not in the rearview mirror."

Also see

Lake Chad

Lake Chad, in Africa, has shrunk by 90% over the last 40 years due to climate change. 

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto