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Keeping the Pulse of the Planet: Using Big Data to Monitor Our Environment


By Neno Duplan

Big data has become a major buzzword in tech these days; the ability to gather, store and aggregate information about individuals has exploded in the last few years. Businesses are harnessing that data to understand consumer behavior at unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, consumer advocates worry about big data’s power to aggregate our information, and that the access to our information, movements, purchases, availability, even your Wednesday-night route home from work, can be tracked, stored very cheaply and sold to other companies. Yet with all of this tracking and gathering of data about our activities, and the subsequent concerns over privacy, most of us do little to resist the tide of monitoring.

Modern humans have become major data junkies. We are complicit in this cycle with our online activity and mobile use and have been for years. We create meticulously cultivated personal radio stations in music apps; we enter our food intake and exercise in weight-loss apps; and we record late-night feedings of infants in breastfeeding apps. We wear monitoring devices — voluntarily — to gather data about ourselves even when we sleep. We even have them for our dogs!

These activity trackers or digital monitors typically combine a wearable device with a website or smartphone app to view data collected about your movements and habits. The goal is to measure not only your steps from the parking lot to your desk, but also your sedentary downtime at work or in front of a television, bursts of intense exercise and even your sleep habits — all to create a complete picture of your most and least healthful behaviors. Some models also offer tips and set goals based on your data. The devices send all the data about your movements back to a Web-based tracking program, which displays your every move and calories burned on the sort of precise charts and graphs that economists use to monitor recessions. The idea behind having this complete picture of your activity is to spur you into action to change unhealthy habits and make better choices for your body.

How fit is the planet?

There is an opportunity for us to use this same insatiable desire to collect data for another good: environmental monitoring. Similar devices, equipped with environmental monitoring sensors such as temperature, carbon, or chemicals in the air or water can give us unprecedented information about a location’s, region’s or the planet’s overall health. In the event of an environmental disaster like a major spill, nuclear accident or volcanic eruption, we could have an instant characterization of short- and long-term impacts of that disaster on its surroundings. What could be more important than keeping the pulse of the planet as a whole? We may be able to derive more health benefits from such data than from personal monitoring. If you live in downtown Beijing, knowing about the quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink may help more with making health choices than any amount of monitored exercise.

Why we should care

Stepping up monitoring of the environment actually feeds into our desire to understand the data we monitor about ourselves. If we are monitoring ourselves to improve our health then we cannot ignore another factor that may have equally, if not even more of an effect on our wellbeing: environmental exposure to toxins. Studies as far back as July 2000[1] indicate that environmental factors may be playing a much more prominent role in the incidence of cancer than was previously believed. The conclusions of these studies over the past decade indicate that inherited genetic factors make a minor contribution to susceptibility to most types of cancers, and that the environment has an important role in causing cancer. Dr. Robert N. Hoover, of National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland, said:
"Several things seem clear with respect to the importance of genetic and environmental factors in the causation and control of cancer. First, knowledge of one should expand our knowledge of the other. Information about types of environmental exposure that affect the risk of cancer should point to genes that might modify this risk, and the identification of genes associated with risk could help to indict previously unrecognized environmental risk factors. Second, when genes and environment interact to produce a risk greater than the sum of their independent effects, this interactive component can be eliminated by removing either the genetic or the environmental factor. Finally, for cancer at many sites there are limited effective options for prevention. For this reason, unique opportunities to expand our knowledge of risk factors should be exploited regardless of their source. Perhaps it is time to drop the competition implied by talking about a debate over nature versus nurture in favor of efforts to exploit every opportunity to identify and manipulate both environmental and genetic risk factors to improve the control of cancer.”

Much like with a FitBit, if we have access to more complete environmental information we can act on it faster and demand changes from polluters that will improve our health. And these changes don’t have to be very big — for instance, detecting persistent low-level emissions from a source that otherwise may go undetected for years can improve air quality in a given neighborhood, which may in turn have more of an effect on human health than any healthy level of exercise. The movies “Civil Action” (1998) and “Erin Brokovich” (2000) gave us an introduction to how environmental incidents and human exposure can impact people living in neighborhoods affected by nearby contamination. Earlier and easier access to information could prevent more of these clusters of disease from happening in the future.

Room for improvement

Unfortunately, businesses are currently not so keen on sharing the data they collect about their emissions, wastewater and energy use as they are with sharing consumer information. But they are gathering data, aggregating and analyzing it, and even acting on their activities as part of their risk-management protocols and environmental stewardship.

What’s missing is the commitment to work across an industry, region or country to measure all of these activities in a meaningful way on a global scale. What is also appalling is that some Fortune 100 companies environmental managers are reluctant to host their company’s environmental data in the cloud for fear of someone accessing it without authorization — the very same data their company is obliged to report to regulators and for which it is against the law to not disclose data if found to exceed regulatory limits. Ironically, some of the very same companies see no problem with accessing our private information from consumer cloud companies to target us in selling their products and services. Despite this resistance from business leaders, over the longer term it is idealistic to envision a world in which we can use shared environmental data to take a more concerted approach in our collective environmental stewardship.

The work that we do at Locus is aimed at addressing a monumental global problem. There is a growing need for companies to harness their huge disconnected databases and spreadsheets and mine the information. In a decade or so, planet Earth may be a meshed grid of static sensors coupled with movable ones installed on people, transportation devices, and other moving objects to collect data in real time. The conversation about the environmental landscape has evolved drastically over the last 50 years as we continue to comprehend the extent to which human activity has affected the planet. Companies and society need a collective and holistic understanding of the problems we face.

The only way to understand the full picture, and in turn to act meaningfully on a global level, is for all individuals and companies to understand the impact of their activities. It’s impossible to mitigate the risks and effects of those activities to the planet when we don’t have the data to characterize the problem and see the full picture. Perhaps someday we will have environmental data sharing among all public and private organizations, the regulatory bodies that govern them, and the scientific community at large- but any coordinated effort is years in the making. One of the impediments to institute a change like this lies with the government. So far, there have been no imposed data exchange standards; a prerequisite for a broad data exchange. In the meantime, Locus is ensuring we are ready to help tackle the problem one site, one facility, and one enterprise at a time.

Image credit: Flickr/alper

Neno Duplan is the president & CEO of Locus Technologies, an environmental data management software company that’s been providing businesses with the power to be green-on-demand since its founding in 1997. Locus’ cloud software enables companies to organize and validate all key environmental information in a single system, which includes analytical data for water, air, soil, greenhouse gases, sustainability, compliance, and environmental content. For more information on Locus Technologies, visit: www.locustec.com.

3p Contributor

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