Drones or boots on the ground? How data collection can save humanity


High-tech data collection cannot help us meet world sustainability and biodiversity targets unless it collaborates with human-based low-tech data mechanisms, writes Eye on Earth’s Dr Simon Stuart.

The Eye on Earth initiative—led by the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi (EAD), through the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) — is now up and running, to provide a mechanism to strengthen the connection from environmental data collection to packaging the data to inform decision-making for sustainable development.

This is particularly timely in the light of the emergence of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (especially #6 on freshwater, #14 on marine environments, and #15 on biodiversity) as well as the implementation of existing commitments such as the 2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and its 20 Aichi Targets.

Eye on Earth has convened a major summit in the UAE in 2011 and will convene a second summit in October 2015. It has organised eight “special initiatives” which serve to connect communities of practice in themes as diverse as blue carbon, environmental education, and biodiversity. It is currently in the process of maturing into an Alliance, supported by the EAD, AGEDI, the Group on Earth Observations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Resources Institute.

Some of the focus of the Eye on Earth initiative has rightly been on the promise of new technologies: how can advances in remote sensing, drones, mobile sensors, and internet crowdsourcing better mobilise data for sustainable development?

However, the Eye on Earth Alliance members also maintain that high-tech data mobilisation must complement existing “low-tech” data collection mechanisms – those for which human beings serve as the process for collecting environmental observations. This is crucial for at least three reasons.

1 Local environmental issues

First, environmental issues are primarily local – they vary enormously by location. While remote sensing technology can now operate at very high spatial resolutions, many relevant processes of environmental change are largely invisible to technology.

Maybe the most striking example is the conversion of non-forest ecosystems. Remote sensing has made tremendous strides forward in high-resolution documentation of changes in forest cover, which is crucial for biodiversity, carbon storage, hydrological function and the maintenance of indigenous and local livelihoods and cultures. However, changes to shrubland, savannah, grassland, desert, wetlands, and most marine ecosystems remain largely opaque to remote sensing. Expanding the utility of satellite-generated data to document changes in such ecosystems is an important research priority. However, the presence of human capacity on the ground will remain essential to provide ground-truthing of remotely sensed information both within and beyond forests.

2 Species

Second, ground-truthing efforts help to identify species. For some areas of the world, and for some taxonomic groups (plants, for example) there is limited knowledge about what species exist.

Additionally, beyond ecosystem conversion, other direct drivers of environmental change are also very hard to detect from space. These include direct use (unsustainable or sustainable) of natural resources, the spread of invasive species, disease, pollution, climate change, and synergies between any and all of the above.

The Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity recognise that particular attention is required to assess the status of plants, fungi, invertebrates and marine and freshwater species. This baseline data is essential for establishing conservation action. Similarly, technological advances tell us little about the benefits which people derive from the environment, including nature-based solutions to humanity’s problems such as food and water security.

3 Future leaders

Third, and maybe most important, though, is the crucial interaction between fieldwork and capacity building. The development of future generations of leaders in sustainable development, environment, and conservation requires people who have empathy for nature – for life beyond the twenty-first century human environment of concrete, steel, and glass.

This is essential if our future decision-makers are to understand the cultures, challenges, and solutions of the half of the world’s population who still live outside of cities. And it is essential to release the innate biophilia – love of our natural world’s diversity – of our children as they step into the role of sustaining life on Earth.

The Eye on Earth Alliance members maintain numerous programmes to support the development of such capacity. All of these programmes of course experiment with and harness new technologies as they become available: using remote sensing data to locate field sites; applying drones to detect poaching in remote protected areas; and so on.

Their common features, though, are their focus on ensuring both the delivery of otherwise-unavailable field data relevant to sustainable development decision-making, and of inspiring the next generation of conservation leaders through connection with nature. As such, they are crucial contributions towards the achievement of the Aichi Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals more generally. Strengthening these programmes will therefore be an important theme of discussion at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi this October.

Dr Simon Stuart is chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, and an Eye on Earth Alliance member.



Photo credit: NASA from Flickr