At a high-level side event at this year’s UN Climate Talks in Bonn, leaders from private sector data companies joined with United Nations representatives in a call for increased “data philanthropy” to drive efficiency, power innovation and support efforts for more affective climate action.
Hosted through the Sustainable Innovation Forum, the event uncovered new trends in data-driven innovations to inform policy, inspire collective action, and explore concrete ways to replicate and scale data innovations toward achieving the Climate Action goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda.
“Data, innovation and technology are essential for efficient and effective climate action and sustainable development,” said Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Amina J. Mohammed in her opening remarks. “The urgency of climate action is increasing… To fully understand and respond to today’s complex and interlinked challenges we need to make the best use of the powerful tools that innovation and technology can offer. This includes collecting analyzing and presenting big data, one of our most powerful new resources.”
Worldwide, better use of data and technology could have immense impact on achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement. For instance, weather collected via vast arrays of easily deployed lightning detection networks could be used to improve crops reports, protect myriad industries from uncertain climate outlooks, and provide fast-acting alerts on severe weather that can destroy infrastructure and take lives.
With financing from the Global Environment Facility Least Developed Countries Fund, Green Climate Fund (GCF), Government of Canada and Adaptation Fund, UNDP supports over 75 countries in modernizing weather, water and climate monitoring and reporting systems worldwide.
One example comes from Malawi, where the Government just launched a UNDP-supported, GCF-Financed climate information project that takes the use of climate data, and extends it to reach vulnerable communities along the “Last Mile” with improved access to farming reports and risk-reduction mechanisms like weather-based index insurance.
“The private sector will be key in bringing this data to the farms, businesses, industries and decision makers that need it most. For instance, mobile operators can share crop reports via cell phones, weather monitoring technologies could be deployed on cell phone towers, Big Data companies can provide platforms to crunch data and package it for use by a diverse group of industries – from energy to agriculture,” said Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Head – UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Global Environmental Finance Unit. “By sharing this data openly across various ministries and economic sectors, decision makers will have improved information to make more evidence-based plans to build National Adaptation Plans and sectoral strategies for climate resilience.”
At the Bonn event, Rober Orr, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on Climate Change, highlighted that one of the main challenges in leveraging big-data for good is that data is often privately owned – and contains private information – creating a “firewall” that prevents effective sharing with policy makers and the public.
The idea behind “data philanthropy,” according to Orr, is to connect public and private sectors as equal partners.
“Data has immense power to help solve the climate equation… Can we use big data to offer new climate solutions to countries, cities and citizens? Can we leverage big data to bring into the tent those actors that are not currently part of the drive for climate action?” asked Orr. “In the drive for climate action, ‘data exhaust’ can be used in any number of ways to dramatically increase energy efficiency in buildings, enforce regulations on deforestation, manage waste, change consumer patterns, or incentivize investors to create smart cities.”
The event featured winners of the Data for Climate Action Challenge, an open-data innovation competition focused on leveraging big data and analytics for social good.
The challenge was launched earlier this year by UN Global Pulse and Western Digital, calling on innovators, scientists and climate experts to harnesses the power of big data and data science to catalyze action on climate change. The Challenge connected 97 semi-finalist research teams with donated datasets from 11 companies.
In 2016, UNDP hosted a similar innovations challenge through the Climate Action Hackathon, which awarded scholarships to 23 web developers to use climate and weather data to build mobile applications that could be delivered on the ground in Africa.
Western Digital and the United Nations Global Pulse were key partners in the Data for Climate Action Challenge.
In his presentation, David Tang, Senior Vice President at Western Digital, underlined that public-private partnerships are proven to work, and that data can be used to drive efficiency.
“Data can also result in deeper insights, which can help drive the acceleration of breakthrough discoveries and it can also be used to fuel real-time analytics to keep us healthier and safer,” Tang said.
Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, underscored the opportunity-cost of not having big data harnessed around the world already.
“Not having these kinds of solutions already in use at scale around the world is incurring an opportunity-cost for literally billions of people,” said Kirkpatrick. “You know we think of big data as a new kind of natural resource – or unnatural resource – infinitely renewable, increasingly ubiquitous – but one that has fallen into the hands of what’s been an opaque and largely unregulated extractive industry that’s just beginning to wake up to the recognition that it has a social opportunity – and perhaps a social responsibility – to make sure that this data reaches the people who need it most.”