11 Mar 2019 Story Environment under review

Plugging the data gap: Google, European Commission's Joint Research Centre and UN Environment unveil freshwater monitoring app

Photo by Google Earth

UN Environment, Google and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre have unveiled a groundbreaking web-based platform that fuses big data and environmental science to monitor global freshwater ecosystems, opening the door to a new era of data-rich analysis that could reshape how we measure humanity’s environmental footprint.

The publicly available, free platform brings together the Joint Research Centre's expertise in satellite data and data analysis, Google's cloud computing and artificial intelligence and UN Environment’s scientific knowledge, to show how water ecosystems are changing over time.

The app was presented during the United Nations Science-Policy-Business forum, taking place in Nairobi this weekend ahead of the world’s most influential environmental forum, the Fourth UN Environment Assembly. That meeting will focus on how to harness innovation to tackle our existential environmental challenges, and sustainable consumption and production.

UN Environment and Google hope to eventually establish a platform for open-source data and analysis of more of the Sustainable Development Goals, the roadmap towards ending poverty, ensuring equality and guaranteeing the survival of our planet, that was adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015.

Jillian Campbell, chief statistician at UN Environment, said the app would enable countries to track progress on Sustainable Development Goal 6.6, which seeks to halt the degradation and destruction of water-related ecosystems, and to assist the recovery of those already degraded.

“We are really excited to be able to show you that as of now we can use this information to efficiently monitor one of the Sustainable Development Goals,” she told the forum.

Brian Sullivan, team leader at Google Earth Engine, said that the new partnership fits well with Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, a mission, he said, related closely to the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

“This is a tool that we are making freely available for all non-commercial use because we feel this is a critical environmental stage and we want everyone to have the same access to Google’s computing resources to advance these goals,” he said. “We have well over 11 million images, 200 plus public datasets and we are constantly adding new ones… and the idea is that anyone with access to an Internet connection can access all this data.”

Image by Google Earth

A lack of reliable, consistent and comparable data has often stymied those seeking to implement real-time environmental action. Critical data gaps can delay action, not only on the environment but also on wider development issues, making it difficult to draft effective policies.

The new platform uses a data mining algorithm—Global Surface Water Explorer—developed by the European Commission Joint Research Centre. Andreas Brink, senior scientist at the centre, told the forum it would support more informed decision-making.

“Water is changing all the time. It is highly dynamic. For decision makers, it is of vital importance to know where water is… in a regular, consistent way,” he said. “But to understand the situation today, we have to look in the past. Monitoring from the past to the current situation is critical.”

Using the algorithm and through collaboration with Google, it was possible to create a web-based interface that shows 35 years of water history, including information for every month, he said.

“The data is fully open and transparent, and it is also guaranteed for the next 10 to 20 years at least... It is not only fully validated but fully reviewed… It is the example of how remote sensing can support the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.

Initially, the project will focus on freshwater ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes. These areas account for 0.01 per cent of the world’s water but provide habitat for almost 10 per cent of known species and there is mounting evidence that there has been a rapid loss in freshwater biodiversity.

By providing satellite images accompanied by downloadable statistical data and trend analysis, the platform can help Member States understand changes occurring in the spatial extent of open water bodies; identify new or lost water bodies; and identify where changes are happening to seasonal water bodies. It is hoped to expand the project to air quality and oceans, among other sustainable development topics, in the future.

UN Environment’s Campbell said the app could have very practical results at community level. “It’s also a flagging system. You can identify where there may be a problem, then someone needs to do more research… and this is where we need community engagement to say, ‘here’s what it looks like, here’s how it’s affecting us’.”

The critical role of data in accelerating global moves towards more sustainable policies was underscored at the opening of the Science-Policy-Business Forum on Saturday. The two-day meeting brings together tech giants, civil society and key figures from the policy, finance and science communities to push ways of using cutting-edge technology to create cleaner, greener and more efficient solutions to sustainable development.

This year, the forum was marked by the launch of two major initiatives: the first international Working Group on Big Data and Artificial Intelligence Convergence, and the Green Technology Startup Hub.

“We will not be able to achieve the 2030 (Sustainable Development) agenda without using frontier technologies and integrated data to influence our behaviour,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment.


About the UN Environment Assembly

The United Nations Environment Assembly is the world’s most influential environmental forum, attended by heads of state, environment ministers, chief executive officers of multinational companies, non-governmental organizations, environmental activists, and more, to discuss and make global commitments to environmental protection. The Assembly is the year’s best opportunity to track the latest developments in environmental policy and action, report on new stories and interview people in power, the world’s foremost environmental innovators and those whose lives and livelihoods are threatened unless we embark on a path to sustainable consumption and production. The Fourth UN Environment Assembly gathers under the twin themes of innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production, aiming to inspire nations, companies and individuals to #SolveDifferent and take a critical look at how they produce and consume.