Big Data for Big Change


The UAE capital of Abu Dhabi is working to collect information for the longevity of the planet. Global initiative Eye on Earth aims to unify and strengthen our global awareness through the use of interconnected data – from holistic urban spaces to sealife.

Humanity has a big challenge on its hands. We are a population growing from seven billion to over eight billion by 2025, putting massive strains on global resources as we produce, consume and grow at astounding rates. How can we ensure that we continue to develop as a species, while at the same time safeguard the planet that sustains our existence? How can we decouple our ambitions for economic growth from the alarming rates of natural resource depletion?

These are some of the most pressing questions of our time and we are on a tight deadline to address them to alter the course of our destiny. Change is imperative and our future is wholly dependent on us working together, at all levels of society and across geographical boundaries, to shape a future in which our wellbeing and the health of our planet are aligned.

• Agriculture is responsible for about 70 per cent of global water withdrawals and 24 per cent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions – World Resources Institute & Foley et al

• Forests under pressure – the equivalent of 50 football fields is lost each minute – Hansen et al 2013 World Resources Institute

The power to create change

2015 is going to be a big year for sustainable development. The post-2015 development agenda and the release of the Sustainable Development Goals are providing the impetus for action to address these challenges. The 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change is also set to take place this December in Paris, and will see governments sign a global treaty to tackle climate change, the first such treaty since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Achieving the goals of the post-2015 development agenda and the numerous initiatives operating under its principles requires us all – government and corporate leaders, and civil society – to be held accountable for our decisions and the actions we take. Crucial to this is the ability to start making informed choices, based on quality environmental, social and economic data and information.

Eye on Earth (EoE) is a pioneering global movement that understands that knowledge is critical to sustainable development. Under the guidance of the governing EoE Alliance of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, through the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, the Group on Earth Observations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Resources Institute, EoE aims to equip decision and policy makers, and ordinary people with the knowledge they need to make more informed decisions about the health of our planet.

The movement’s mission is implemented through eight programmes of work or “Special Initiatives” (SIs) that cover equal access, environmental education, linking knowledge networks, biodiversity, community sustainability and resilience, disaster management, oceans and blue carbon, and water security.

Education – a powerful weapon

While the post-2015 development agenda encompasses a wide variety of topics, including ending poverty and hunger, making cities sustainable, and protecting ecosystems; there is one common theme behind all of these issues: the need for education. One of EoE’s foundational special initiatives is environmental education for sustainable development. In particular, it focuses on the role that Information and communications technology (ICT) can play in helping environmental decision makers to access, understand and apply data to real-world challenges.

Under the leadership of the Central European University, Budapest, and the United Nations Environmental Programme, the EoE Environmental Education SI regularly conducts cutting- edge professional training for decision makers, keeping them up-to-date on the latest ICT advances and their potential use in a wide variety of public policy and environmental applications

Accountability – the impetus for translating commitment into results

Environmental democracy exists when the citizens of a country are able to freely access environmental data and information, understand its impact, participate meaningfully in decision- making, and demand enforcement of environmental laws to mitigate risk or compensate for damage.

Despite some advances, laws and regulations protecting citizens’ rights to participate in decisions that impact their environment in many parts of the world remain vague or absent. The Environmental Democracy Index (EDI), an initiative of the World Resources Institute and the EoE, seeks to address this issue through the provision of the first publicly available, online platform to track and score 70 countries on their national environmental democracy laws. Its goal is to create more transparency and help bolster citizens’ rights throughout the world by providing governments everywhere with a tool that will enable them to measure and compare results, and act toward a more equitable and transparent system.

People power

The Ecocitizen World Map Project seeks to place power firmly in the hands of ordinary citizens, empowering them through the provision of tools and methodologies to understand their environment and surroundings with a view to improving the quality of their life. The initiative connects neighbourhoods on the ground with online crowd-mapping tools designed to explore, understand, and measure holistic urban health from a citizen’s perspective. Led by Ecocity Builders in collaboration with the Organization of American States, Esri, the Association of American Geographers, and the EoE, along with local academic partners, NGOs and community organisations, the project aims to direct actions towards a shared vision of sustainable and equitable development, starting from grass-roots level, and feeding all the way to municipal and national levels.

Piloted in Casablanca, Morocco, Cairo, Egypt, and Medellin, Colombia, the project is now expanding to Lima, Peru.

From the bottom-up

Healthy and functional marine and coastal ecosystems play a fundamental role in human wellbeing and development as they absorb more carbon emissions than terrestrial ecosystems. The EoE Ocean and Blue Carbon SI focuses on collecting data on mangroves, seagrass and intertidal saltmarshes to inform climate change mitigation through carbon storage and sequestration, as well as maintenance of ecosystem services valuable to coastal communities.

As part of this SI, the UAE, through the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, has made great strides in empowering the Emirate’s policy-makers with quality analysis and methodology to support informed decisions on the wellbeing of the coastal marine ecosystems for a more sustainable UAE.

New projects being proposed under the Oceans and Blue Carbon umbrella include the Living Oceans, Living Planet programme, which seeks to further the science, policy and communications aspects of Fish Carbon, advancing the blue carbon work beyond the coast and to the high seas. Conservation of ocean species such as whales, turtles, dolphins, sharks, tuna, and other marine vertebrates can enhance the recently identified natural functions they perform in facilitating movement of carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ocean depths, where it does not impact climate and can be stored on potentially millennial timescales, far longer than terrestrial forests.


Photo credit: NASA from Flickr