By Beth Lillian

big-data-climate-change1One of the most significant advantages of the modern Information Age is our ability to gather, process and analyze data with a level of speed and precision that would have been unheard of just a decade prior.  Almost everything we do online and within the increasingly vast “Internet of Things” ecosystem leaves behind a digital footprint that can then be used to trace purchasing history, media consumption and other activities.

Using “Big Data” in this way has had a remarkably powerful impact on the private sector and within the realm of politics. Marketing research teams are able to construct highly detail profiles of consumers they wish to target – and political candidates are able to do the same, albeit with the intent of attracting and persuade specific chunks of the electorate.

As the worldwide revolution in data unfolds further, it’s pertinent to examine the way these new methodologies are evolving to change the way we think about our relationship to the planet and the issue of climate change. The United Nations has already recognized the utility in employing data to develop solutions to address the complex challenges presented by warmer temperatures, rising seas, and more extreme weather patterns.

bigdatascreenshotBy collecting vast amounts of data regarding our natural surroundings and then looking at it closely, scientists can gain a better understanding as to just how our actions impact the environment. Scarce resources can also be more effectively managed by taking a comprehensive view of supply and demand and adjusting output accordingly. Extensive swathes of climate data help us construct more accurate climate models than ever before, enabling more accurate predictions of future events and faster, more effective action plans. Of course, any computer model is only as good as the input that’s fed into it, so the ability to gather mountains of accurate information is crucial to the success of these projects.

The Global Ecological Land Units map is a project being jointly undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey and ESRI, a software firm that tries to solve big problems. They aim to map ecosystems across the entire world in unprecedentedly fine detail by taking into account local vegetation, geology, topography, precipitation and other features. As opposed to similar efforts in the past, this one will be based on actual data as opposed to the opinions of experts. This map will hopefully allow researchers to better understand the impact of climate change on specific areas of the world and help authorities better conserve the environmental resources located within their jurisdictions. Because the relevant info will be displayed in an interactive map, the workings of Mother Nature will become more easily comprehensible to people with only a lay understanding of science – like elected officials.

On a smaller scale, Opower is trying to get individual people to conserve energy. Many pay lip service to sustainability, but it’s hard to remain focused on such an intangible goal without some spurring along. After collecting information about energy use in specific neighborhoods, Opower sends its clients reports that let them know how they’re performing vis-à-vis their neighbors in terms of saving energy. This system harnesses our natural competitive instincts in order to get us to act responsibly by comparing ourselves against our nearby peers.

There are plenty of other attempts to apply big data to pressing ecological issues. Some are being made under the auspices of public organizations while others are being directed by private groups. They have in common a commitment to the philosophy of using all the data we have available to make the best possible decisions regarding the future of our planet.

Beyond allowing for the study and analysis of ecological happenings, data also plays an increasingly crucial role shaping public perceptions about global warming and climate action. “Addressable” advertising, which allows corporate entities as well as political campaigns to beam ad spots directly to specific viewers, has the capacity to direct public sentiment on a myriad of important issues. This year, pay cable companies DirecTV and Dish Network partnered to give presidential candidates access to their vast cache of customer information, thereby altering the way specific voters are engaged in the environmental debate. The Cruz campaign, for instance, has become well-known for its messages carefully tailored with information gained through “sentiment” data mining.

When confronting the serious issues tied to global warming and climate change, we ought not to remain wedded to the past. The development of new technology, such as inexpensive solar panels and time-shifting batteries, is making a big positive impact on our ability to cleanly satisfy our energy demands. The proper use of “Big Data” is another cutting-edge advancement that we can mobilize towards the benefit of the entire planet.