Can big data save the earth for our children?

Altered nature photo by Julie Yamamoto
Altered nature photo by Julie Yamamoto

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.” – Einstein

Although I don’t subscribe to theories of past lives, I suppose if it were possible, I may have been a tree-hugging hippie or Native American herbalist or wildlife caller. I have, in fact, hugged trees, and feel such a deep connection to earth and nature that it came as no surprise that Earth Day was designated on my birthday (April 22), and the International Day of Forests was designated on the birthday that my mother and son share (March 21). Our son was also given a nature name that means “soaring river” like the waterfalls I have always loved.

“The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it” – Barack Obama

So all the issues that threaten this beautiful earth that we live on concern me deeply – global warming, climate change, pollution, de-forestation and loss of wildlife. Consider these stats:

  • Sunpainted Ki by Julie Yamamoto (@jyam6, @WindwalkerDream)
    Sunpainted Ki by Julie Yamamoto (@jyam6, @WindwalkerDream)

    Rainforests cover 2 percent of the earth’s surface but are home to 50 percent of all plants and animals and supply 75 percent of our planet’s fresh water. Yet over half of the world’s rainforests have already been lost.

  • Between 18 million to 32 million acres of forest are lost each year, and deforestation accounts for up to 20 percent of human greenhouse emissions.
  • World wildlife populations have been halved in the past 40 years, and an estimated 1,000 known species of wildlife have gone extinct in the past 500 years. However, the extinction rate for unknown species could be as high as 10,000 per year.
  • The earth has been warming since 1880, but the 10 warmest years have been in the past 12 years.
  • Since 1994, 400 billion tons of glacier ice have been lost, and an estimated 11.2 percent of Arctic ice is lost per decade.

This chart from NASA perhaps sums it up the best. To put it mildly, humans have not had the best impact on planet earth. In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

Image credit: NASA
Image credit: NASA

So is big data the new hope?

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has dubbed data as the new natural resource. And it is clearly helping enterprises gain a leading edge. Two recent studies by the IBM Center for Applied Insights highlighted that the use of big data and analytics is a key differentiating factor for leaders. In the IBM Business Tech Trends study, nearly 7 in 10 of the leading companies, or “Pacesetters,” make analytical insights an integral part of decision making. And, in the Generation D study, those organizations that are driven by data and analytics (called Generation D for data) are 2.9x more likely to use predictive analytics to inform most processes and decisions.

Can analytical insights help scientists and governments protect our planet?

Like enterprises, the scientists and agencies charged with protecting our planet are faced with challenges of numerous and variable data sources, incomplete data and the ongoing task of harnessing enormous volumes of data to make better decisions. With the emergence of new sources of data –citizen scientists sending information in through their mobile phones, crowdsourcing apps, satellite data and the rapid digitization of natural history collection data – scientists are now gaining a clearer picture of the natural world. This is critical for key conservation areas such as tracking deforestation and threats to species, enforcing ethical manufacturing, guiding conservation efforts and helping to prevent poaching. IBM is lending its resources, technology, and 40+ years of environmental leadership to the efforts:

–(1) Facilitating China’s pollution reduction, energy and environmental goals by leveraging cognitive computing, optical sensors and the Internet of Things to harness numerous data sources for advanced predictive modeling.

–(2) Working to conserve the planet’s water supply through smarter water management such as automatic leak detection through analytics.

–(3) Partnering with the Nature Conservancy to save the Amazon through improvements to a cloud-based application, including a crowd-sourcing forum, for land managers to track and meet environmental goals.

–(4) Driving toward clean energy sources through projects like Watt-sun, which is leveraging Watson’s cognitive computing abilities to more accurately predict how cloud cover, weather and atmosphere (among many other data points) affect the way solar panel systems operate.

–(5) Improving conservation efforts for endangered species such as Grevy’s zebra through predictive analytics.

–(6) Helping cities worldwide gain a better understanding of their water systems by combining big data, mobile technology and crowdsourcing through apps like Creek Watch and Water Watcher that help local water authorities track pollution, manage water resources and plan environmental programs.

And IBM is not alone in this commitment to the environment. It’s encouraging that other companies within the technology industry, such as Hewlett Packard, Google, and Intel, are also lending resources and technology toward the goal of using big data to save the earth. Because, when it comes to preserving the earth for our children, we need all the help we can get.


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Originally published on the IBM Center for Applied Insights blog April 2015

2 thoughts on “Can big data save the earth for our children?

Add yours

  1. Surely one of the biggest factors causing environmental stress is population growth – there’s a great graphic at http://www.census.gov/popclock/ – and this needs to be included in any effort to save the planet. Any steps we take to mitigate our impact is quickly outweighed by sheer volume of humans. Can big data contribute to managing population?

    1. Hi Chris, I think humans, whether we are few or many, have a responsibility to care for this planet and live in harmony with nature. Even in the most crowded places on earth, there are some countries doing better than others in this respect. While we can all do our part with things like recycling, using less water, etc., it is the government agencies and scientists who have the most direct responsibility to care for the environment who could benefit the most from the use of technology and predictive insights.

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