We Need a Data-Rich Picture of What’s Killing the Planet

Clive Thompson at Wired: “…Marine litter isn’t the only hazard whose contours we can’t fully see. The United Nations has 93 indicators to measure the environmental dimensions of “sustainable development,” and amazingly, the UN found that we have little to no data on 68 percent of them—like how rapidly land is being degraded, the rate of ocean acidification, or the trade in poached wildlife. Sometimes this is because we haven’t collected it; in other cases some data exists but hasn’t been shared globally, or it’s in a myriad of incompatible formats. No matter what, we’re flying blind. “And you can’t manage something if you can’t measure it,” says David Jensen, the UN’s head of environmental peacebuilding.

In other words, if we’re going to help the planet heal and adapt, we need a data revolution. We need to build a “digital eco­system for the environment,” as Jensen puts it.

The good news is that we’ve got the tools. If there’s one thing tech excels at (for good and ill), it’s surveillance, right? We live in a world filled with cameras and pocket computers, titanic cloud computing, and the eerily sharp insights of machine learning. And this stuff can be used for something truly worthwhile: studying the planet.

There are already some remarkable cases of tech helping to break through the fog. Consider Global Fishing Watch, a nonprofit that tracks the world’s fishing vessels, looking for overfishing. They use everything from GPS-like signals emitted by ships to satellite infrared imaging of ship lighting, plugged into neural networks. (It’s massive, cloud-scale data: over 60 million data points per day, making the AI more than 90 percent accurate at classifying what type of fishing activity a boat is engaged in.)

“If a vessel is spending its time in an area that has little tuna and a lot of sharks, that’s questionable,” says Brian Sullivan, cofounder of the project and a senior program manager at Google Earth Outreach. Crucially, Global Fishing Watch makes its data open to anyone­­­—so now the National Geographic Society is using it to lobby for new marine preserves, and governments and nonprofits use it to target illicit fishing.

If we want better environmental data, we’ll need for-profit companies with the expertise and high-end sensors to pitch in too. Planet, a firm with an array of 140 satellites, takes daily snapshots of the entire Earth. Customers like insurance and financial firms love that sort of data. (It helps them understand weather and climate risk.) But Planet also offers it to services like Global Forest Watch, which maps deforestation and makes the information available to anyone (like activists who help bust illegal loggers). Meanwhile, Google’s skill in cloud-based data crunching helps illuminate the state of surface water: Google digitized 30 years of measurements from around the globe—extracting some from ancient magnetic tapes—then created an easy-to-use online tool that lets resource-poor countries figure out where their water needs protecting….(More)”.