Climate Change and Big Data

The world is not a simple place. It’s a tangled mess of competing stories; a battleground of problems, plans, and consequences. Not only do we have to consider the behaviors and movements of 8 billion human beings in this frustrating equation, but also the planet we live on — and the changes we have wrought upon it.

One piece of this great global mess that I focus on often, and to great dismay, is the horrifying realities of climate change. It’s not just some abstract, future idea, either: the increase of destructive super storms like Hurricanes Sandy and Maria has been linked to rising global temperatures caused by human activity. The incompetence, deceit, and greed of those in power have doomed the current generations to a future of natural disaster, drought and famine.

I know. Happy stuff. I’m not interested in glossing over problems, though. What I am interested in is finding solutions. For years, environmentalists have been hammering in what we need to do to combat the effects of climate change. They offer us plenty of pragmatic solutions, from the personal — such as cutting animal products out of your diet — to the institutional — such as putting a price on carbon worldwide.

We should support these initiatives, both in our personal lives and at the ballot. We should fight tooth and nail to protect our planet for future generations, and to stem the already considerable death toll of this man-made disaster. To these truths, I can add nothing.

What I can do, however, and what anyone currently working in the burgeoning data industry can do, is to help dream up solutions that don’t even exist yet. Because while man-made climate change is arguably the defining trend of the modern era, it’s not the only one. Another important trend is the fact that, by the year 2019, an estimated 5 billion people across the planet will be carrying a smartphone in their pocket.

Cutting-edge, large-scale solutions are already being implemented using the data from many of these users, mostly in the fields of advertising, financial tech, and cyber-security. But why couldn’t some of this data — including the location data that X-Mode collects and leverages — be used to create larger global solutions to climate change? Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge we have of the ways humans interact with the planet, the more we can do to save it.

A lot of the top minds in the industry are already working on this problem and to great effect. We’ve written a lot on this site about the power of Smart Cities, which are becoming more advanced as more user data becomes available. In the future, city planners could use population maps and other datasets to determine the best places to install bike-share racks, or public transit stops. Smart power grids could optimize their energy usage based on how highly trafficked an area is. The possibilities are endless.

Even more exciting use cases are being discussed as well. A few years ago, Fortune wrote an article about some of the most ambitious projects using big data to combat climate change, and it’s still an inspiring read. For example, a company called Opower uses data from power grids to shame people into reducing their energy usage — studies suggest this kind of peer pressure is a highly effective motivator for behavior. This example hits particularly close to me since Opower is partnered with my own power company, allowing me to see how I compare to my neighbors each month. I will admit, it’s not always pretty.

This list goes on, and the solutions it poses are exciting. But it was also written a few years ago when the possibilities offered by location data were not as widely understood. This kind of data could also play a part in the global fight against climate change, I believe. Imagine if some of the powerful targeting solutions used by advertisers and big corporations were instead used by climate activists to get their message in front of potential recruits.

You may think these ideas don’t sound fully formed. That’s because we are still at the beginning of this cultural moment. But if big data companies dedicate real resources to solving the most pressing problem of our time, maybe we could start to make real progress. It’s certainly past time to step up.

By: Joseph Green

Joseph is currently a student at Emerson College, where he studies Visual Media and Communication. As Content Creator, Joseph develops engaging content via blog posts, push notifications, and ad-copy. Joseph also draws upon his research skills to help contextualize the company’s place within larger technological and social trends in the industry.