Right now, huge swathes of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are burning. In the Arctic, ice has melted to near-record lows while communities across California, Oregon, and Washington are still recovering from wildfires so severe they stained the sky orange and left people unable to breathe. Though each of these events are the result of various local and global factors, one common element is clear: climate change. The failure to limit greenhouse emissions makes us more susceptible to disasters.
Data is key to achieving serious reductions in carbon emissions and blunting climate change’s ongoing impact. Through improved situational awareness, a better understanding of cause and effect, enhanced predictive capabilities, or real-time impact assessments — all possible by leveraging data in new ways — we can develop the policies and interventions needed for this crisis. Organizations such as the International Open Data Charter and the World Resources Institute have already published guides showing how open data assets can be used to pursue these values for climate action.
Yet, as Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London, argues, there are far more data assets that could be useful in guiding action. The problem is that these assets are rarely standardized and are not easily accessible. Much of it is proprietary and hidden. Climate activists will need to identify and prioritize the most pressing and useful questions for spurring climate action and find ways to access the datasets that can help answer them.
Achieving this goal will not be easy, but progress has already been made in a variety of areas. At the Open Data Policy Lab, an initiative from The GovLab supported by Microsoft, we have worked on sourcing questions; identifying data assets, and establishing data collaboratives through the following initiatives and actions:
Sourcing priority questions on air quality that can be answered by data: As part of The 100 Questions Initiative, we have partnered with the World Resources Institute to establish a cohort of bilinguals — experts with data science and domain expertise — to define the most pressing air quality questions that can serve as an agenda for future data collaboration and reuse.
Identifying open data sources and use cases that can advance climate action. With the Inter-American Development Bank and key officials within the Viceministerio de la Presidencia Costa Rica we developed a Open Data Demand Assessment and Segmentation Methodology to guide officials on identifying, segmenting, and engaging those interested in data use. We developed and tested the methodology in Costa Rica to align the supply and demand for data on climate change.
Learning from best practices on how data can be used for climate action through detailed case studies. Our Open Data Impact project documents how the use of open data can improve people’s lives through 37 case studies. For instance, the Aclímate Colombia case study details how, in Colombia, organizations used open data to mitigate the consequences of climate change on farmers and others. The case study informed our Periodic Table of Open Data Elements, detailing the conditions that determine the impact of open data initiatives. Similarly, our Case Study on the Global Fishing Watch, a part of our Data Stewards Network efforts, documents the value of data collaboration, a collaboration beyond the public–private partnership model in which participants from different sectors exchange data to create public value, for environmental ends.
Mapping and analyzing the field of data for climate action. Our Data Collaborative Explorer collects over 200 data collaborative projects around the world, the largest such repository. It includes links, brief descriptions, a list of participants, and an explanation of the data used in 38 environmental projects, including an effort by California water utilities to better manage resources and a project by the mobile operator Telefónica to identify people displaced by climate.
The Open Data Policy Lab will expand on this work in the months to come. By supporting decision-makers across sectors and at all levels of governance, we can foster responsible data initiatives that contribute to economic development, societal progress and environmental resilience.