The promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet

Key decisions are needed in the next 12 months to set in motion a robust architecture and governance framework

David Jensen
Sep 11 · 24 min read

Authors: Jillian Campbell and David E Jensen, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Reviewers and case study contributors: Brian Sullivan (Google), Lucas Joppa (Microsoft), Anne Bowser (Wilson Center), Steven Ramage (Group on Earth Observations), Gavin Starks (IceBreakerOne), Laurent Durieux (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development), Andrew Zolli (Planet), Alison Lowndes (Nvidia), Annie Virnig (UNDP) and Gary Lewis (UNEP).


A range of frontier and digital technologies have dramatically boosted the ways in which we can monitor the health of our planet. And sustain our future on it (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A range of frontier an digital technologies can be combined to monitor our planet and the sustainable use of natural resources (1)

If we can leverage this technology effectively, we will be able to assess and predict risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and inform markets as well as consumer choice. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, for this vision to become a reality, public and private sector actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet — one consisting of data, infrastructure, rapid analytics, and real-time insights. We are now at a pivotal moment in the history of our stewardship of this planet. A “tipping point” of sorts. And in order to guide the political action which is required to counter the speed, scope and severity of the environmental and climate crises, we must acquire and deploy these data sets and frontier technologies. Doing so can fundamentally change our economic trajectory and underpin a sustainable future.

This article shows how such a global digital ecosystem for the planet can be achieved — as well as what we risk if we do not take decisive action within the next 12 months. This is an extended version of the Foresight Brief issued by the UN Environment Programme in September 2019.

We human beings have given ourselves 10 more years to achieve the SDGs. But the next 12 months will be critical. During this short period of time the following determinative events will take place:

  • The Climate Summit in New York in September 2019 will set the agenda for the next decade on climate change.
  • The Climate COP in the UK in 2020 will revise the Paris Agreement.
  • The Kunming COP on biological diversity will set new 20-year targets for the “more silent crisis” of the slow loss of nature.
  • Finally, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will set the agenda for the hydrosphere through a new global oceans treaty.

All available evidence shows that we are not on track to avert the two greatest existential environmental challenges on our doorstep: the climate crisis and the nature crisis (2). We are not even effectively measuring global progress against the SDGs. A total of 68% of the 93 environmental SDGs indicators cannot yet be measured due to a lack of data (Figure 2) (3). All efforts to marshal knowledge and action are thus required. Having a digital ecosystem in place will be absolutely critical to what happens to our home on this planet in the coming decades.

Figure 2. 68% of the environmental SDG indicators cannot yet be measured due to a lack of data

What’s at stake ?

In order to reach the point where we marshal the digital ecosystem to our advantage (28), policy makers, businesses and citizens need to more actively embrace the complexity, scale and magnitude of these changes and their consequences.

The challenge is that while there is broad recognition that humanity must capitalize on this massive increase in data generation and processing power (figure 3) to help monitor and manage the state of our planet, there is no common vision, directed strategy or governance framework (29). We still lack a planetary dashboard to monitor our critical natural resources and ecosystem services at the global, national and local levels. Moreover, we cannot capture the promise of frontier technologies for the planet if we don’t also address the potential perils and pitfalls.

Figure 3. Sources of data that can power a digital ecosystem for the planet

Currently, a myriad of public and private sector actors is building data sets, digital infrastructure, algorithms and insights for the environment. But these actions are haphazard and fragmented. In a new — and welcome — development, private sector actors are beginning to offer digital public goods and related analysis (30). But this is happening without a broader understanding of the long-term business models and incentives that should sustain and finance these services. A global conversation is therefore needed to determine how these efforts can best sustain global public goods, protect privacy, achieve inter-operability and keep quality standards high. Finally, we need to decide how to govern and pay for this digital ecosystem. This will yield answers to the question of how to maintain a balance between public and private sector interests and incentives.

But the first step is to start ratcheting-up talk about our digital ecosystem for the planet.

Building a Digital Ecosystem for the Planet

The remaining sections of this article summarize the arguments in that paper. Again, these are perspectives from a cross-section of thought leaders determined to secure a solid evidentiary basis for fixing our planet’s environmental crises.

The main call to action of this article is for public and private sector actors to continue building on this common vision.

The global digital ecosystem should consist of four elements: a) raw data, b) a supporting technological infrastructure, c) algorithms and analytics; d) insights and applications. All this will then be used to support a transformation in our thinking and behavior. One which produces a social tipping point and delivers different sustainability outcomes (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. A digital ecosystem for the planet integrates data, infrastructure, algorithms and insights to achieve different sustainability outcomes (33)

A digital ecosystem can be defined as ‘a complex distributed network or interconnected socio-technological system’. It features adaptive properties like self-organization and scalability. In this sense, a digital ecosystem, much like natural ecosystems, is characterized by both competition and collaboration among its many diverse public and private sector components.

But it is the numerous interactions and linkages between these seemingly individual or autonomous entities that make an ecosystem functional. Similarly, a digital ecosystem for the planet must connect individual data sets with algorithms and analysis in order to create robust and timely environmental insights and intelligence. It must generate the correct insights at the right scale. It must deliver these at the right time and in the right format. Their goal must be to influence decision-making, action and — crucially — future investment.

As data flows through the ecosystem, it is eventually transformed into insights that can be used for decision making to achieve other sustainability outcomes (Figure 3). Governance strategies and standards will be needed for each step of the transformation process:

  • Raw Data: The foundation of a digital ecosystem is numerous data sources, including small and big data on environment. These must be collected through various methodologies including official statistical reporting, earth observations, in-situ sensors, citizen science, commercial datasets and other relevant data streams. The ecosystem will include essential information such as metadata documentation and provenance, licensing, collection methodologies and peer review. It will need to delimit for potential biases, confidence levels and relevant use constraints. For each type of data source, standards and guidance will need to be adopted for quality assurance, data labeling and inter-operability (34,35,36,37). This will also require investments to ensure that data models are developed in a way that informs policy and that data is structured and managed in a way that allows high-quality, comparable and trusted analysis. At a minimum, contributors to scientific data pools must be required to publish FAIR data (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) (38).
  • Infrastructure: The infrastructure for a digital ecosystem will store, process and connect existing databases. It must seek to improve metadata, discoverability and accessibility. For obvious reasons, due to the volume and complexity of such data, it will be impossible to host it centrally. But an ecosystem does not require that all data be pulled into a single central location. Rather the focus will be on bringing data, algorithms and processing power together in various clouds. These will be connected in a manner where data can flow and interoperate seamlessly. But this will require compliance with open application programming interfaces (APIs) and other emerging standards. For this reason, all actors contributing to the digital ecosystem will be obliged to publish information on the infrastructure they are using together with information about their open source and commercial software.
  • Algorithms and Analytics: Data and supporting infrastructure are, together, the backbone of the digital ecosystem. But these will require algorithms and analytics in order to extract actionable insights and business intelligence. Data science and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are already available and growing in number and quality. These will be used to yield data insights. But processes are needed to ensure quality and transparency while avoiding bias and protecting privacy. Peer reviews, open algorithms, and public documentation of processing methods will be essential to ensure public trust.
  • Insights and Applications: The final part of the process is to transform the knowledge thus generated into actionable insights and evidence. End users need to integrate multiple information streams into metrics and performance dashboards. Such insights and evidence must be made comprehensible to decision-makers, investors, consumers and citizens alike. Timing is essential if public participation, accountability and market pressure is to be sustained in pursuit of the sustainability goal. So is placement, scale and format. Public trust in the resulting insights will be best assured when applications are co-designed together with end users and related institutions. Increasingly, we are witnessing calls for companies to publish information on the business models they are using. This will be needed if potential conflicts of interest can be identified and managed.

The aim is to eventually use the insights to produce outcomes that power sustainability for people and planet. These can include:

  • real-time planetary monitoring and predictive analytics for global and national environmental targets — a basic planetary dashboard;
  • environmental risk information to markets and commodity supply chains;
  • product sustainability information to inform and nudge consumers; and
  • verified scientific information for social media to educate and engage citizens.

What is already being done?

Global Forest Watch and Resource Watch

The World Resources Institute (WRI) is one of the leading non-governmental organizations to leverage the power of frontier technologies for monitoring the pulse of the planet. Global Forest Watch (GFW) is an open-source web application to monitor global forests in near real-time using satellite images and AI. The GFW is an initiative of the World Resources Institute, with partners including Google, USAID, the University of Maryland, Esri, Vizzuality, GEF, UNEP and many other academic, non-profit, public, and private organizations.

More recently, Resource Watch was established to extend the monitoring capabilities to other natural resources using open geospatial data and statistics. Resource Watch provides journalists, analysts, decision makers, and students the opportunity to explore more than 200 available data sets on the state of the environment, including access to an open API for data sharing. Collaboration with Resource Watch has also enabled the National Geographic Society to launch EarthPulse — a data-driven platform that enables the operational monitoring of key global ecosystems across the planet for decision-makers. Summary dashboards provide actionable information that are updated with the best scientific datasets. The dashboards are augmented with emotionally engaging storytelling and photos to bring the data to life.

Global Surface Water Extent — SDG 6.6.1 app

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), Google Earth Engine and UNEP teamed up to develop the sdg661.app for Water-Related Ecosystems. The Surface Water Viewer shows changes in global water extent based on satellite images and AI. The period covered is 1984 to 2018. It uses interactive maps, graphs and full-data downloads. This yields a globally consistent and robust set of critical statistics for every country’s annual surface water. The platform relies on machine-learning algorithms to automatically detect the presence or absence of surface water and it highlights changes over time. This data is currently being used as a globally consistent baseline for SDG indicator 6.6.1 (change in extent of water-related ecosystems over time) with UNEP offering quality control and data custodianship.

UN Biodiversity Lab

The UN Biodiversity Lab aims to help countries increase the amount of spatial data and analysis used in their 6th National Reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Lab combines over 100 global high-quality spatial datasets with analysis, visualization, and storytelling tools. It has been designed specifically for policymakers with the aim of helping them make evidence-based decisions for conservation and sustainable development. All reporting countries are provided with customized private cloud workspaces for uploading and analyzing national data in the context of broader global datasets. The tool is simple and easy to use. It does not require any previous experience in mapping software.

A powerful partnership funded by the GEF and the UNDP Innovation Facility, the Lab brings together technical partners including the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, NASA, IUCN, and MapX, an open source web mapping architecture developed by UNEP and GRID-Geneva. Countries that used the UN Biodiversity Lab to help them monitor and report on the status of nature increased their use of spatial data by over 200 percent.

The UN Biodiversity Lab continues to evolve. It plans to support countries to move beyond reporting to identify nature-based solutions that can safeguard biodiversity while combating the climate crisis and fostering sustainable development. As part of this agenda, it will upgrade its interoperability with other biodiversity and protected areas platforms including Protected Planet, the Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA), the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership (BIP) Dashboard and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Space Climate Observatory

The Space Climate Observatory (SCO) is an international initiative set in motion at the end of 2017 by France on the eve of the One Planet Summit. Its goal is to combine satellite and field data with scientific research to model, predict and track climate change and its impact. It does so at national, regional and local levels. It harvests information from 20 space agencies including: Europe, China, India, Mexico, Brazil, France, UAE. The SCO programme is expected to play a key role in monitoring the implementation of a number of SDGs.

SCO uses a combination of space technologies, targeted measurements and relevant models cross-referenced with socio-economic data. The ultimate goal is to provide climate change impact scenarios for decision-makers to respond to the challenges of adapting to and coping with these impacts. The SCO was officially launched by President Emmanuel Macron in June of 2019 during the Paris Air Show. On this occasion more than 20 space agencies and international organizations (UNDP and UNOOSA) signed a Joint Declaration of Interest for the creation of the SCO.

The Open Data Cube

Geoscience Australia developed and released the Open Data Cube technology and it has subsequently been supported, developed and promoted by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites and the Group on Earth Observations (Figure 4). It has been modified and deployed in Colombia and Switzerland with approximately 50 other countries at different levels of maturity and use. Digital Earth Africa will build on Open Data Cube (39) technology to deliver a unique continental-scale platform.

The aim is to “democratize” access to operational and analysis-ready satellite data. It will track changes across Africa in the following areas: soil and coastal erosion, agriculture, forest and desert development, water quality and changes to human settlements. And it will do so in unprecedented detail. A Steering Committee for Phase I of Digital Earth Africa was formed in 2018 and has broad representation, including Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, as well as from the World Economic Forum, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and the Group on Earth Observations.

The Allen Coral Atlas

Given the massive threats to coral reefs from climate change, pollution and acidification, a number of global efforts are underway to monitor their health. These efforts use frontier technology and data integration from multiple sources. One of these is the Allen Coral Atlas. This is a global coral conservation effort to map all of the world’s shallow-water coral reefs in unprecedented detail. The process involves continuous monitoring for change using high-resolution satellites, field data and artificial intelligence. The effort is a collaboration between Vulcan, Planet, Arizona State University, University of Queensland and the National Geographic Society.

Earth Challenge 2020

Earth Challenge 2020 will help engage millions of global citizens in collecting and sharing one billion open and interoperable data points. These cover: air and water quality, pollution, biodiversity, food systems and climate change. Citizen science volunteers from around the world, working with professional scientists, will collect and share earth science data in their local communities. This will be done through a massive campaign leveraging mobile apps and other sensors. Earth Challenge is a partnership between the Earth Day Network, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and other partners to be powered by Amazon Web Services using in-kind credits.

Icebreaker One

Icebreaker One — named after the workshop process of bringing people together — gathers financial markets, public sector institutions, asset owners and the science community into a common space. It aims to unlock the finance, data and innovation needed to address our climate and biodiversity emergencies. Icebreaker One is focussed on the cultural mechanics of data publishing and use: developing common principles and practice. It builds on existing work (e.g. in Geospatial, IoT), bringing together initiatives and organisations to demonstrate the investment case for development, and on specific interventions — such as data licensing — that require cross-sector action. Icebreaker One aims to unlock and integrate the data that can influence investment decisions of $3.6T/year to deliver net-zero or net-negative outcomes, unlocking a marketplace for data sharing through common principles and practice, and $50M/year in leveraged finance for innovation.

Overcoming the risks

Four key governance risks need to be addressed.

1. Monopolies linked to global datasets: Currently, much of the big data and technological infrastructure are held by a handful of companies. This creates a market risk in terms of who has access to use data to make decisions, influence markets and determine investments. It also creates concerns in terms of privacy, data security and dependencies. As companies release a swarm of satellites, drones, sensors and mobile applications to capture information on the earth’s natural resources, it is important to ask how this wealth of data will be governed, how power asymmetries will be mitigated and how anti-trust regulations will be updated (40). We need to understand what incentives, safeguards and standards are needed to ensure that environmental data and processing power are used to help humanity solve long-term global environmental challenges rather than exacerbate existing inequalities and digital colonialism.

2. Quality, transparency and openness of data and algorithms: As mentioned, this includes metadata standards, data licensing, provenance and traceability, interoperability and disclosure of potential biases and confidence limits. As companies take an increasing role in the generation of digital public goods, we need to ensure that the quality of data and algorithms are not compromised by the allure of short-term profits. Or the influence of biased and erroneous data as well as misinformation, fake news and “alternative facts”. The potential role of actors such as the UN to serve as impartial honest brokers of data in non-commercial settings should be explored.

3. Protecting individual privacy, data security and intellectual property. There are privacy risks related to data which is collected on (or from) individuals. Protecting privacy, intellectual property and security must be core to the design criteria in building the digital ecosystem. There must also be a recognition that some data will, of necessity, remain only at the national level and be governed by national priorities, context and culture. Existing frameworks such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can help build such protection frameworks within the global digital ecosystem. Increasingly, as algorithms begin to manipulate human agency and exploit human vulnerabilities, we also need to protect against a scenario of hyper consumption fueled by surveillance capitalism (41) and persuasive technologies (42). The privacy and security implications of national regulatory regimes that govern cloud-based data centers also needs serious consideration.

4. Direct environmental impacts: as reliance on computers and data centers grows, governments and technology companies need to implement measures to reduce their direct environmental impact. This includes using renewable energy solutions across the data ecosystem, addressing e-waste management and improving responsible supply chain sourcing.

Finally, and although this is not a “risk” in the strict sense of the term, the effort to build a digital ecosystem will come to nothing unless governments, academics, the media and citizens build their own capacity to engage, use and communicate environmental insights in a meaningful way. This is necessary to avoid the significant risks, commercial dependencies and power asymmetries that could follow if they do not. A global ecosystem for data, infrastructure, algorithms and insights must foster national engagement and buy-in for data to be used for SDGs implementation, policy development and evidence-based behaviors. This must go hand in hand with agile governance models as well as new norms, ethics and values that can guide how the technology sector can contribute positively to sustainability and digital public goods. Above all, we need to learn how to overcome the echo chambers, toxic digital discourse and perverse incentives in the “attention economy” that tend to undermine collective action on the environment (43). We must also learn how to combat digital addiction by putting down our phones and seeking experiences that reconnect us with the natural world.

What needs to happen next

  • The UN Science-Policy Business Forum’s Working Group on Data, Analytics and AI must continue to address these challenges. It must come with an action plan by the next meeting in September 2020 — adopt it — and then start implementing it.
  • All UN member states, international institutions and relevant non-governmental organizations must clarify their own policy positions on how a digital ecosystem for the planet can be built, paid-for and governed in the next 12 months. There is an urgent need for international leadership that can offer a vision, a coordinated strategy and funding to connect the environmental community and policy-makers with technologists and coders (44) (45).
  • The Global Environment Outlook and World Environment Situation Room of UN Environment Programme should be powered by frontier technologies and big data. A special debate and resolution on this topic should be considered for the next UN Environment Assembly and in the implementation of the global environmental data strategy (46).
  • Different funding bodies such as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the World Bank should consider how they can leverage existing and future investments to positively influence the shape of the emerging digital ecosystem for the planet.
  • The private sector and experts in frontier technologies must continue to work hand in hand with domain experts from different environmental fields as well as end users of environmental data such as banks, pension funds and insurance companies. They must explore practical applications and use cases for solving different environmental and climate challenges while using technology to drive sustainability(47).
  • Citizens will need to be engaged in using and collecting data in order to make better environmental decisions and to better engage in a dialogue on the environment with companies and political actors.
  • These efforts should be connected to the UN Global Pulse initiative and the work of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, including the to the recent report of the panel “The Age of Digital Interdependence” (48). We need to define environmental data streams that comprise digital public goods and imagine new multi-lateral multi-stakeholder processes and institutions that can govern these challenges with coalitions of the willing.

We may worry that building a digital ecosystem for the planet sounds like an ambitious dream. But humanity has successfully come together to achieve similar fantastic visions. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN (estimated to cost USD 1 billion per year) is one example. The Human Genome Project (estimated at USD 200 million per year) is another. These are impressive examples of international cooperation at-scale. They have generated global public goods which continue to propel human knowledge and well-being.

In many ways, we have invested at the atomic, genetic and cellular levels in global cooperation frameworks on a grand scale. Similar cooperation is now needed to build a digital ecosystem for our planet. This is the next logical progression. Our planetary security depends on it.

So here is the call to action. It is time for stakeholders in all domains to unite in building a common vision for a digital ecosystem of data, infrastructure, algorithms and insights to provide actionable evidence on our collective progress towards sustainable development.

A future that leverages the digital revolution for the planet is ours to imagine and create. The future is what we make it. And it is happening now.

Acknowledgements

Graphics: Yalun Jin and Tsubasa Enomoto (UNEP). Babar Mumtaz (IT Solution Hub).

References

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David Jensen

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Working for UN on digital governance & mapping environment, security & peace dynamics using frontier technology. Co-founder MapX. Alumni: TedX, Oxford and Uvic.

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