Sustainable apartment block

How big data and open data can advance environmental sustainability

The industrial revolution brought many advances, including improved living standards, for many (but not all) people around the globe. But it has also led to environmental degradation, and is responsible in part for the climate crisis we now find ourselves living in. One potential contributor to solving this environmental crisis is the use of open environmental data, available to all, that can be analysed and used in ways that maximise sustainability. The only problem is that there are not, at present, global environmental open data resources – although many jurisdictions do have open data projects focused on the natural and built environments.   Open data and big data – the opportunities and challenges Open data is just as it sounds: data sets collected by agencies that are made freely available to anyone that wants to use them. The Australian government has its own open data program available at has collected open data from all levels of government and all types of data. From an environment standpoint it covers everything from tree planting to garbage bin locations, collection schedules and contents. It’s true this open data project doesn’t sound particularly sexy. But it’s the possibilities that this vast data resource opens up that are the most interesting aspects of the program. Suddenly, there’s information available about what’s happening in the local environment, all available in a format that is easily digestible by common data analytics programs.   The use cases for open data Where governments can use open data is in developing policies designed to ensure better environmental regulation. The potential for data collection is also limitless. It’s not just restricted to satellite data but is also open to everything from home weather stations, citizen activist activities like counting bird populations or tracking the growth of bush and forests, through to advanced “internet of things” sensors. These IoT devices can capture just about any sort of data imaginable. Want to know how much sunlight fell on a particular field over a certain period of time? An IoT sensor can tell you. This latest sensor technology offers real-time reporting of environmental data. And that data can be used to create open databases available for anyone to use. Organisations can also use open data, and the IoT to track their own sustainability efforts. Miners, for example, can understand how much CO2 their operations are creating, and then use that data to create carbon offsets in a bid to meet net zero emissions – as many Australian organisations, including mining giants like BHP, have committed to. A critical part of the open data movement, however, is the analytics associated with finding insights and answers about our environment.   The importance of analytics Analytics works in two ways. First, it can derive insights into what has happened and why. But more importantly, it can also provide insights into what will happen, when it will happen, and what are the contributing factors for that particular outcome. Business and government needs to use this open data, and analytics, to create new models around sustainability. That’s because until recently, the environment was treated as an externality – that is, something to be used (and abused) but which wasn’t factored into calculations about the bottom line. With the shift towards sustainability, more and more companies are taking environmental inputs and outcomes into their ledger books, and calculating profit based on their environmental performance. These calculations are all powered by data, and the insights from advanced analytics. Without data and analytics, we’re going to repeat the mistakes of the past when it comes to environmental issues. The tragedy of the commons is real, but by using open data sets, we can map a future where business, government and the environment are moving forward for the betterment of the earth – and humanity.  
  By Paul Leahy, Country Manager, ANZ, Qlik Source Eco Voice