UNEP Live: Building an Information Powerhouse

Can a new kind of website transform how environmental data are collected and shared? The creators of UNEP Live think it just might.


The United Nationals Environment Programme hopes it has created the go-to site for environmental information in the 21st Century. Image Credit: UNEP.

The United Nationals Environment Programme hopes it has created the go-to site for environmental information in the 21st Century. Image Credit: UNEP.



The wonky adage, “What you can’t measure, you can’t manage,” could be the motto of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Established in 1972 with a staff of 12 working out of a few small rooms above a supermarket in Nairobi, Kenya, the agency now has regional offices on five continents and projects in 100 countries from which it collects vital environmental data. UNEP not only gathers information from thousands of land-based observation stations, but also from every ocean basin on the planet as well as from the outer reaches of our planet’s atmosphere. These data are used to produce thousands of reports covering virtually every aspect of the environment, from climate change to renewable energy, to disaster preparedness, to the use of dangerous chemicals in gold mining.

According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, however, the swelling river of Big Data also creates some big headaches.

“We have so much knowledge now,” says Steiner, “that the frontiers for action are sometimes not recognized quickly enough simply because of the complexity, the diversity, and the volume of data.”

That’s important because action is at the very heart of UNEP’s mission. New information leads to policy changes which, in turn, lead to actions that benefit humankind. At least that’s how the system is supposed to work.

Chinese actress and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Li Bingbing taking part in a UNEP campaign to raise awareness about the plight of elephants and rhinos in Africa. Image Credit: GGoodwin/UNEP/STE.

Chinese actress and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Li Bingbing taking part in a UNEP campaign to raise awareness about the plight of elephants and rhinos in Africa. Image Credit: Goodwin/UNEP/STE.



Relying on printed reports can’t solve the conundrum created by such a massive glut of data (and there is something unseemly about sacrificing more and more trees to further an environmental message). Simply posting information online, while helpful, wasn’t sufficient.

“People who came to our portal would say, ‘That’s really great, fantastic, lots of data, but I have no idea how to use it,’” explains Jacqueline McGlade, senior adviser to Steiner.

To complicate matters further, the problem wasn’t just the extraordinary amount of data. UNEP also wanted to open up the entire “supply chain” of information, from who contributed data to who consumed it, and how.

What to do?

UNEP’s answer was to create a new conceptual framework and a technological platform that is interactive, nimble, data-rich but user-friendly and action-oriented. Several years in the making, the ambitious Web-based project called UNEP Live was launched on Jan. 16, 2014, at the Group on Earth Observationstenth plenary meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

Most UNEP reports have been based on expert interpretation of peer-reviewed literature, explains Peter Gilruth, who led the effort to develop the new system. What is needed now, he says, is “a process that doesn’t rely solely on the expert community and their (perhaps) preferred sources of information.”

A slide from a 2012 presentation on the need for UNEP Live. Image Credit: UNEP.

A slide from a 2012 presentation on the need for UNEP Live. Image Credit: UNEP.



In this way, UNEP Live is modeled on Eye on Earth, a highly-regarded exercise in citizen science developed by the European Environment Agency when UNEP’s McGlade led the organization. With the support of Esri, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software giant, Eye on Earth brought together scientists and laypeople to collect and share data as well as to create applications that make both activities easier, cheaper, and faster.

“The Eye on Earth community,” says Gilruth, “represents a broader set of stakeholders with whom UNEP must work to achieve objectives that might not be easy to reach within intergovernmental settings alone.”

Capacity building

UNEP Live allows a host of users, including countries, research networks, and indigenous peoples, to share the most up-to-date environmental data and assessments on scales that range from local to national to regional to global. Themes supported by UNEP Live include improving urban infrastructure, managing ecosystem services, and mitigation and adaptation of climate change. The system also allows users to manipulate data by providing mapping and publishing tools.

Gilruth has a wealth of experience to draw on, as director of UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA), and, before that, six years working on Earth observation systems as a sub-contractor to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

UNEP Senior Advisor Jacqueline McGlade and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner react as UNEP Live goes online at the Group on Earth Observations’ 10th Plenary in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 16, 2014. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson.

UNEP Senior Advisor Jacqueline McGlade and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner react as UNEP Live goes online at the Group on Earth Observations’ 10th Plenary in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 16, 2014. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson.



“My preparation,” he says, “began with years of working with African governments on building their capacity to collect and use environmental information. What I learned is that technological advances have to be balanced with institution building, particularly in developing countries.  It is a mistake to believe that technology will leap-frog the human and social dimension of environmental information systems.”

Shahid Habib, the chief of the Office of Applied Sciences at GSFC, agrees.

“It doesn’t matter how much technology you have,” Habib says. “If you don’t address the societal issues then such investment may not address the critical areas such as water resources, agriculture, human health, and more.”

Habib points to the many new data sets of hydrological, atmospheric, land cover and land use information collected by satellites. Scientists have never collected so much data. But, says Habib, “If the data reside in the ministry of a country and they don’t reach out to users such as farmers, it’s no better than if that information was sitting on a scientist’s shelf. Earth observation has to be an end-to-end investment.”

Some of today’s thorniest problems are also transnational. Aquifers, for example, don’t respect political boundaries, which makes partnerships essential to creating water policies that are sustainable and equitable.

In this screen grab from UNEP Live, near real-time information about air quality in China is displayed. Image Credit: UNEP Live.

In this screen grab from UNEP Live, near real-time information about air quality in China is displayed. Image Credit: UNEP Live.



“This is why we have to come out of our comfort zone and share data,” adds Habib. “There is always a reluctance to share, because data is information and information is power. But the onus is on us as scientists to reach out to users with this information.”

And that leads back full-circle to capacity-building, a component that UNEP’s Gilruth believes is the biggest challenge facing UNEP Live.

“How can you go about integrating diverse sets of data and information if there is no access?” he asks. “Promoting access to information is a key to capacity-building.”

UNEP officials consider UNEP Live an important step toward the goal of sharing environmental data that can make a critical difference in people’s lives around the world. But they also recognize that a lot more needs to be done to make that dream a reality.

“This,” Gilruth cautions, “is a long road.”

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview with UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. Image Credit: UNEP.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. Image Credit: UNEP.



Following the launch of UNEP Live in Geneva in January, Earthzine sat down with UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner to talk about the new platform.

Earthzine: Can you tell me about the origins of UNEP Live?

Steiner: UNEP Live is rooted in the paradigm of science. It’s driven by a paradigm of inquiry and that scientists produce research not because someone commissions it but because it is knowledge. Knowledge has its own right to be of importance.

What is happening in the world today is that we have so much knowledge now that the frontiers for action are sometimes not recognized quickly enough simply because of the complexity, the diversity, the volume of data. And therefore as we’ve seen with the Internet, but also with journals, there is a tremendous need first of all to take advantage of the fact that we can correlate a lot of data sets nowadays. They open up completely new horizons of knowledge, and more importantly, from the vantage point of UNEP, opportunities to act. What used to be viewed as a local phenomenon is today recognized as a global change phenomenon and therefore has implications for action.

UNEP logoThe second area where I see evolution is the necessity to act increasingly on a planetary basis requires us to accelerate the transition from where science begins to emerge (which is never a singular big bang outcome), to where the policy arena can begin to act. And this is particularly important when we observe issues such as global warming, or the collapse of fisheries. We have to accelerate our capacity to act even with imperfect knowledge. That in itself is not new, but the complexities we’re dealing with means that imperfect knowledge needs to be “de-risked” from the point of view that you’re able to take what are sometimes major economic decisions, or major regulatory decisions such as banning a substance or phasing out lead in fuels. This is why I think we are in a different age in which information is both by volume and availability creating new challenges but also opening up far quicker opportunities to act and respond. That means the intermediaries are able to take something that is routed in a wholesale manner – “here’s my data, you figure out whether it’s useful” – to actually processing to the point where people can say here is what you need to act on.

It is precisely at that point at which we, as a UN body with a 42-year tradition of being science driven, we have, within the ambit of the program, generated enormous amounts of scientific data and analysis through our networks, whether GEO and GEOSS, or climate research centers. We can take a great deal of information and bring it closer to where users are actually able to access it, and lead them deeper into the source of the data and provide analysis that connects data sets. This includes best practices. One of the things that the UN does is collect data on what are the best practices in countries around the world, and share them with others thereby creating a kind of knowledge capital, which is of extreme interest to policymakers.

UNEP produced this video to explain its plans for UNEP Live.

 

Earthzine: When was UNEP Live conceived?

Steiner: Five years ago, in terms of a need. It was conceived in terms of the beginning of a solution two years ago. It was launched as a beta version (in November 2013), and today we have gone live. We don’t want to be just a repository. We actually want to have a network of data generating points across the planet, across the different themes where some of the data are accessible within five minutes of being generated.

We often invest a great deal to produce reports, but they are static points, milestones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports take between five and six years. The fundamental phenomena may not have changed, but the data sets could be changing every hour, or, in some cases, in a matter of minutes. That is something that I think create a whole new frontier of moving from emerging science to policy to action. And that is really the ultimate purpose we have in maintaining such a service to the world.

Earthzine: How will you measure the success of UNEP Live?

Steiner: We will measure success on three levels. First, by the number of hits. Is this a place that people come to in a viral sense? Do people say, “If you want to get the latest data, maybe go to UNEP Live”?

The second measure of success is to identify major areas of opportunities to act that we will then take into the arenas such as the UN Environmental Assembly or back into the climate change negotiations.

Third, does UNEP Live enable us to achieve what we’ve all been striving for for a long time, which is the capacity to report collectively on progress made? Maybe having all countries in five-10 years’ time be able to produce rigorous information based on the state of the environment, composed of both bottom up reporting by countries, science communities, and global reporting data sets, which are more and more the global Earth observation type of data. What we’re trying to demonstrate is that once citizens know about something they are prepared to act on it. We want to reinforce the capacity for international and national environmental action and governance significantly. Because the confidence in the necessity to act and in the opportunities to act through the best practices simply goes up by a quantum step.

Earthzine: Is there anything else about UNEP Live you’d like to share with our readers?

Steiner: Yes, one important thing: the need for open source data. With UNEP Live, we’re part of the next breakthrough in convincing those who hold data and own data that the return on their own investment will increase by multiples by moving to an open source and data sharing program. That will trigger greater interest in having data sets that can be shared. It becomes a self-propelling platform. Because if UNEP Live works, more and more people will want to be involved in it.

By no means should UNEP Live be the only one, but it may turn out to be one of the “go-to” platforms, one of the touchstones for where people in the environmental data and planetary data fields turn. If we do it well, it will still be a kind of locomotive in 10-years’ time. If we don’t get it right, hopefully somebody else will get it.