‘Dark data’ is killing the planet – we need digital decarbonisation

Article by Tom Jackson and Ian R. Hodgkinson: “More than half of the digital data firms generate is collected, processed and stored for single-use purposes. Often, it is never re-used. This could be your multiple near-identical images held on Google Photos or iCloud, a business’s outdated spreadsheets that will never be used again, or data from internet of things sensors that have no purpose.

This “dark data” is anchored to the real world by the energy it requires. Even data that is stored and never used again takes up space on servers – typically huge banks of computers in warehouses. Those computers and those warehouses all use lots of electricity.

This is a significant energy cost that is hidden in most organisations. Maintaining an effective organisational memory is a challenge, but at what cost to the environment?

In the drive towards net zero many organisations are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Guidance has generally centred on reducing traditional sources of carbon production, through mechanisms such as carbon offsetting via third parties (planting trees to make up for emissions from using petrol, for instance).

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy industries, the processing of digital data is already comparable to these sectors and is still growing. In 2020, digitisation was purported to generate 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Production of digital data is increasing fast – this year the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (that is: 97 trillion gigabytes) of data. By 2025, it could almost double to 181 zettabytes. It is therefore surprising that little policy attention has been placed on reducing the digital carbon footprint of organisations…(More)”.

Governing the Environment-Related Data Space

Stefaan G. Verhulst, Anthony Zacharzewski and Christian Hudson at Data & Policy: “Today, The GovLab and The Democratic Society published their report, “Governing the Environment-Related Data Space”, written by Jörn Fritzenkötter, Laura Hohoff, Paola Pierri, Stefaan G. Verhulst, Andrew Young, and Anthony Zacharzewski . The report captures the findings of their joint research centered on the responsible and effective reuse of environment-related data to achieve greater social and environmental impact.

Environment-related data (ERD) encompasses numerous kinds of data across a wide range of sectors. It can best be defined as data related to any element of the Driver-Pressure-State-Impact-Response (DPSIR) Framework. If leveraged effectively, this wealth of data could help society establish a sustainable economy, take action against climate change, and support environmental justice — as recognized recently by French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions Michael R. Bloomberg when establishing the Climate Data Steering Committee.

While several actors are working to improve access to, as well as promote the (re)use of, ERD data, two key challenges that hamper progress on this front are data asymmetries and data enclosures. Data asymmetries occur due to the ever-increasing amounts of ERD scattered across diverse actors, with larger and more powerful stakeholders often maintaining unequal access. Asymmetries lead to problems with accessibility and findability (data enclosures), leading to limited sharing and collaboration, and stunting the ability to use data and maximize its potential to address public ills.

The risks and costs of data enclosure and data asymmetries are high. Information bottlenecks cause resources to be misallocated, slow scientific progress, and limit our understanding of the environment.

A fit-for-purpose governance framework could offer a solution to these barriers by creating space for more systematic, sustainable, and responsible data sharing and collaboration. Better data sharing can in turn ease information flows, mitigate asymmetries, and minimize data enclosures.

And there are some clear criteria for an effective governance framework…(More)”

Nudging Consumers to Purchase More Sustainably

Article by Erez Yoeli: “Most consumers still don’t choose sustainable products when the option is available. Americans may claim to be willing to pay more for green energy, but while green energy is available in the majority of states — 35 out of 50 states or roughly 80% of American households as of 2018, at least — only 14% of households were even aware of the green option, and less than half of these households purchased it. Hybrids and electric vehicles are available nationwide, but still amount to just 10% of sales — 6.6% and 3.4%, respectively, according to S&P Global’s subscription services.

Now it may be that this virtue thinking-doing gap will eventually close. I hope so. But it will certainly need help, because in these situations there’s often an insidious behavioral dynamic at work that often stops stated good intentions from turning into actual good deeds…

Allow me to illustrate what I mean by “the plausible deniability effect” with an example from a now-classic behavioral economics study. Every year, around the holidays, Salvation Army volunteers collect donations for the needy outside supermarkets and other retail outlets. Researchers Justin Rao, Jim Andreoni, and Hanna Trachtmann teamed up with a Boston chapter of the Salvation Army to test ways of increasing donations.

Taking a supermarket that had two exit/entry points, the team randomly divided the volunteers into two groups. In one group, just one volunteer was assigned to stand in front of one door. For the other group, volunteers were stationed at both doors…(More)”.

Citizen science in environmental and ecological sciences

Paper by Dilek Fraisl et al: “Citizen science is an increasingly acknowledged approach applied in many scientific domains, and particularly within the environmental and ecological sciences, in which non-professional participants contribute to data collection to advance scientific research. We present contributory citizen science as a valuable method to scientists and practitioners within the environmental and ecological sciences, focusing on the full life cycle of citizen science practice, from design to implementation, evaluation and data management. We highlight key issues in citizen science and how to address them, such as participant engagement and retention, data quality assurance and bias correction, as well as ethical considerations regarding data sharing. We also provide a range of examples to illustrate the diversity of applications, from biodiversity research and land cover assessment to forest health monitoring and marine pollution. The aspects of reproducibility and data sharing are considered, placing citizen science within an encompassing open science perspective. Finally, we discuss its limitations and challenges and present an outlook for the application of citizen science in multiple science domains…(More)”.

Forest data governance as a reflection of forest governance: Institutional change and endurance in Finland and Canada

Paper by Salla Rantala, Brent Swallow, Anu Lähteenmäki-Uutela and Riikka Paloniemi: “The rapid development of new digital technologies for natural resource management has created a need to design and update governance regimes for effective and transparent generation, sharing and use of digital natural resource data. In this paper, we contribute to this novel area of investigation from the perspective of institutional change. We develop a conceptual framework to analyze how emerging natural resource data governance is shaped by related natural resource governance; complex, multilevel systems of actors, institutions and their interplay. We apply this framework to study forest data governance and its roots in forest governance in Finland and Canada. In Finland, an emphasis on open forest data and the associated legal reform represents the instutionalization of a mixed open data-bioeconomy discourse, pushed by higher-level institutional requirements towards greater openness and shaped by changing actor dynamics in relation to diverse forest values. In Canada, a strong institutional lock-in around public-private partnerships in forest management has engendered an approach that is based on voluntary data sharing agreements and fragmented data management, conforming with the entrenched interests of autonomous sub-national actors and thus extending the path-dependence of forest governance to forest data governance. We conclude by proposing how the framework could be further developed and tested to help explain which factors condition the formation of natural resource data institutions and subsequently the (re-)distribution of benefits they govern. Transparent and efficient data approaches can be enabled only if the analysis of data institutions is given equal attention to the technological development of data solutions…(More)”.

Who Should Represent Future Generations in Climate Planning?

Paper by Morten Fibieger Byskov and Keith Hyams: “Extreme impacts from climate change are already being felt around the world. The policy choices that we make now will affect not only how high global temperatures rise but also how well-equipped future economies and infrastructures are to cope with these changes. The interests of future generations must therefore be central to climate policy and practice. This raises the questions: Who should represent the interests of future generations with respect to climate change? And according to which criteria should we judge whether a particular candidate would make an appropriate representative for future generations? In this essay, we argue that potential representatives of future generations should satisfy what we call a “hypothetical acceptance criterion,” which requires that the representative could reasonably be expected to be accepted by future generations. This overarching criterion in turn gives rise to two derivative criteria. These are, first, the representative’s epistemic and experiential similarity to future generations, and second, his or her motivation to act on behalf of future generations. We conclude that communities already adversely affected by climate change best satisfy these criteria and are therefore able to command the hypothetical acceptance of future generations…(More)”.

Landsat turns 50: How satellites revolutionized the way we see – and protect – the natural world

Article by Stacy Morford: “Fifty years ago, U.S. scientists launched a satellite that dramatically changed how we see the world.

It captured images of Earth’s surface in minute detail, showing how wildfires burned landscapes, how farms erased forests, and many other ways humans were changing the face of the planet.

The first satellite in the Landsat series launched on July 23, 1972. Eight others followed, providing the same views so changes could be tracked over time, but with increasingly powerful instruments. Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 are orbiting the planet today, and NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey are planning a new Landsat mission.

The images and data from these satellites are used to track deforestation and changing landscapes around the world, locate urban heat islands, and understand the impact of new river dams, among many other projects. Often, the results help communities respond to risks that may not be obvious from the ground.

Here are three examples of Landsat in action, from The Conversation’s archive.

Tracking changes in the Amazon

When work began on the Belo Monte Dam project in the Brazilian Amazon in 2015, Indigenous tribes living along the Big Bend of the Xingu River started noticing changes in the river’s flow. The water they relied on for food and transportation was disappearing.

Upstream, a new channel would eventually divert as much as 80% of the water to the hydroelectric dam, bypassing the bend.

The consortium that runs the dam argued that there was no scientific proof that the change in water flow harmed fish.

But there is clear proof of the Belo Monte Dam project’s impact – from above, write Pritam DasFaisal HossainHörður Helgason and Shahzaib Khan at the University of Washington. Using satellite data from the Landsat program, the team showed how the dam dramatically altered the hydrology of the river…

It’s hot in the city – and even hotter in some neighborhoods

Landsat’s instruments can also measure surface temperatures, allowing scientists to map heat risk street by street within cities as global temperatures rise.

“Cities are generally hotter than surrounding rural areas, but even within cities, some residential neighborhoods get dangerously warmer than others just a few miles away,” writes Daniel P. Johnson, who uses satellites to study the urban heat island effect at Indiana University.

Neighborhoods with more pavement and buildings and fewer trees can be 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 C) or more warmer than leafier neighborhoods, Johnson writes. He found that the hottest neighborhoods tend to be low-income, have majority Black or Hispanic residents and had been subjected to redlining, the discriminatory practice once used to deny loans in racial and ethnic minority communities…(More)”.

Measuring sustainable tourism with online platform data

Paper by Felix J. Hoffmann, Fabian Braesemann & Timm Teubner: “Sustainability in tourism is a topic of global relevance, finding multiple mentions in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The complex task of balancing tourism’s economic, environmental, and social effects requires detailed and up-to-date data. This paper investigates whether online platform data can be employed as an alternative data source in sustainable tourism statistics. Using a web-scraped dataset from a large online tourism platform, a sustainability label for accommodations can be predicted reasonably well with machine learning techniques. The algorithmic prediction of accommodations’ sustainability using online data can provide a cost-effective and accurate measure that allows to track developments of tourism sustainability across the globe with high spatial and temporal granularity…(More)”.

See Plastic in a National Park? Log It on This Website for Science

Article by Angely Mercado: “You’re hiking through glorious nature when you see it—a dirty, squished plastic water bottle along the trail. Instead of picking it up and impotently cursing the litterer, you can now take another small helpful step—you can report the trash to a new data project that aims to inspire policy change. Environmental nonprofit 5 Gyres is asking national park visitors in the U.S. to log trash they see through a new site called TrashBlitz.

The organization, which is dedicated to reducing plastic pollution, created TrashBlitz to gather data on how much, and what kind, of plastic and other litter is clogging our parks. They want to encourage realistic plastic pollution reduction plans for all 63 national parks.

Once registered on the TrashBlitz website, park visitors can specify the types of trash that they’ve spotted, such as if the discarded item was used for food packaging. According to 5 Gyres, the data will contribute to a report to be published this fall on the top items discarded, the materials, and the brands that have created the most waste across national parks…(More)”.

Mapping Urban Trees Across North America with the Auto Arborist Dataset

Google Blog: “Over four billion people live in cities around the globe, and while most people interact daily with others — at the grocery store, on public transit, at work — they may take for granted their frequent interactions with the diverse plants and animals that comprise fragile urban ecosystems. Trees in cities, called urban forests, provide critical benefits for public health and wellbeing and will prove integral to urban climate adaptation. They filter air and water, capture stormwater runoffsequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, and limit erosion and drought. Shade from urban trees reduces energy-expensive cooling costs and mitigates urban heat islands. In the US alone, urban forests cover 127M acres and produce ecosystem services valued at $18 billion. But as the climate changes these ecosystems are increasingly under threat.

Urban forest monitoring — measuring the size, health, and species distribution of trees in cities over time — allows researchers and policymakers to (1) quantify ecosystem services, including air quality improvement, carbon sequestration, and benefits to public health; (2) track damage from extreme weather events; and (3) target planting to improve robustness to climate change, disease and infestation.

However, many cities lack even basic data about the location and species of their trees. …

Today we introduce the Auto Arborist Dataset, a multiview urban tree classification dataset that, at ~2.6 million trees and >320 genera, is two orders of magnitude larger than those in prior work. To build the dataset, we pulled from public tree censuses from 23 North American cities (shown above) and merged these records with Street View and overhead RGB imagery. As the first urban forest dataset to cover multiple cities, we analyze in detail how forest models can generalize with respect to geographic distribution shifts, crucial to building systems that scale. We are releasing all 2.6M tree records publicly, along with aerial and ground-level imagery for 1M trees…(More)”