How the paradigm shift to open data is transforming environmental innovation

EDF and University of Wyoming partner locate and document invisible methane emissions in the Permian Basin with advanced monitoring technologies

Accountability is among the biggest drivers of innovation. To change policy or attract investment for a business opportunity, it’s no longer enough to make your case with estimated data. You have to prove it.

But not all data is equal, and the tsunami of data is increasing exponentially. According to IDG, the amount of data worldwide is expected to more than triple by 2025.

As a result, precise, nearly real-time open data has never been more important. “Listen to the science” has become the mantra not just for young climate activists but for investors, major brands like Microsoft and Amazon, and key asset managers like BlackRock.

What’s gone under the radar are the less glamorous but vital daily efforts to empower policymakers, family businesses, entrepreneurs and even the oil and gas industry to help the environment and the bottom line at the same time.

Here are four examples of how EDF and our partners are using advanced data techniques to make lasting change around the globe:

Hyper-local air quality mapping

Satellite data shows that 24 million more Americans than previously thought live in areas with unhealthy air, but many are ill-equipped to push for policy changes that could help. So EDF and partners like Google Earth Outreach and others are piloting a range of studies from Oakland to London featuring new, lower-cost sensors, to help us map air pollution at the hyperlocal level.

By analyzing data from air quality sensors mounted by Aclima on Google Street View cars, we pinpointed air pollution in Oakland at an unprecedented level of detail, showing that levels can vary by up to eightfold within one city block. We then worked with Kaiser Permanente to see how location affects health disparities and discovered that living in areas with the most elevated levels of air pollution increases heart attack risk in the elderly by 40%, similar to a history of smoking.

As California implements its landmark air quality law seeking to reduce pollution in the state’s most affected neighborhoods, Oakland residents and local environmental justice groups are using our findings to advocate for safeguards to clear the air and foster healthier communities.

Further pilot studies in Houston and London have proven that it’s now possible to generate detailed, street-by-street maps of air pollution for cities around the world to drive transformative environmental change.


At the other end of the scale is our subsidiary, MethaneSAT. We now know that cutting oil and gas methane emissions worldwide is the single fastest, most impactful thing we can do to slow the rate of global warming today. MethaneSAT is designed to unlock this opportunity with a high-resolution satellite instrument, powerful new analytics and a campaign to turn data gathered from space into effective climate solutions on Earth.

The MethaneSAT project brings together some of the world’s most seasoned aerospace organizations, from both the commercial and public sector, and leading experts in remote sensing and atmospheric sciences.

The satellite will locate and measure methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on Earth, with precision and at a scale never before achieved, at a fraction of the cost of most space missions. It is specifically designed to generate data that will enable both companies and countries to identify, manage and reduce their methane emissions, slowing the rate at which our planet is warming.

Smart Boat Initiative

The $130 billion global fishing industry lags behind most other economic sectors technologically, but EDF’s Smart Boat Initiative is starting to change that. We’re working with fishermen and technology partners to test sensor, network, data analysis and other technologies to help stem industry losses while targeting the biggest threat to our oceans: overfishing.

By increasing the amount and types of data collected, we’re finding new ways to create value from that information — such as increasing the bottom line for fishermen while also ensuring strong management of a shared resource through better fisheries management. Improving the state of the stock improves the state of the ecosystem as well, which can provide future benefits not just for the fishermen, but for all users of our marine resources.


This first-of-its-kind effort will use advanced monitoring technologies to provide timely, transparent data on how much methane is escaping from the Permian Basin, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producing regions.

EDF partners Scientific Aviation, the University of Wyoming and Pennsylvania State University will help map, measure and analyze methane and toxic air pollutant emissions from clusters of sites down to individual facilities. And EDF is building a web platform to release PermianMAP results in near real time, to facilitate better, faster solutions to cut regional air and climate pollution. Our work there could become a model for cutting methane around the world.

These are just a few examples that show how the Fourth Wave of environmental innovation is transforming what we can do with data, empowering businesses, communities, governments, universities and other institutions to take action in bold new ways.

As we adapt to — and catalyze — that change, EDF will keep bringing together diverse partners to find data-driven solutions to the world’s toughest environmental problems.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave

Environmental Defense Fund

Written by

We work with businesses, governments and communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems. We’re EDF.

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of environmental innovation.

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