Top 5 ways big data can make our world greener

Environment   |   
Published June 13, 2017   |   

It’s true that technology has contributed a lot to the environmental crisis we’re currently facing. Old electronics dumped into landfills, plastics, air pollution—the list goes on. While it’s easy to blame everything on technology, it’s important to remember that it’s also done a lot of good in efforts to make our planet greener. Without technology, we wouldn’t have many of the sustainability solutions we have today, and we should be celebrating all that our advances have accomplished. Big data may seem like a strange tool in green initiatives, but it has some powerful practical applications that entrepreneurs are leveraging in the green space.

5 ways big data makes our world greener

Here are 5 ways big data is helping to make our world greener and more sustainable.

1. Satellite Data Surveys

Satellites are constantly collecting photographic data, which can be analyzed over years to determine the effects of climate change on the landscape. One salt lake in Iran, for instance, was large and vibrant in satellite data from 1984. By 2012, it was a brown streak in the satellite photo. These large data sets can help environmentalists see what kinds of changes are occurring over different time periods, and see where conservation efforts should be concentrated most heavily.

2. More Efficient Utility Distribution

Drought isn’t just an isolated incident in the United States anymore. Many states are experiencing drought on a regular basis. In fact, 9 states are already running out of water, and 40 out of 50 states are likely to face water shortages within the next 10 years. Big data can’t fix the problem entirely, but it can help to distribute utilities like water and power more efficiently, based on usage at certain times of day and other factors that can be collected and analyzed for optimizing the flow of utilities. These systems are known as “smart grids” and they reduce overall utility usage, easing some of the impact on the energy and water supply.

3. Animal Population Monitoring  

Microsoft’s Madingley project has the ambitious goal of simulating all life on this planet. Currently, it shows little dots representing certain animal groups in the wild. The hope is that this big data project will soon be able to predict animal populations based on the effect of climate change, to help scientists fight against extinction.

Another project focused on animal population monitoring is taking place in the Acadia National Park in Maine. Crowd-sourced data on animal sightings helps naturalists keep track of wildlife populations and observe the effects of climate change on these populations.

4. Assessing Public Opinion

You can’t gain momentum for extensive sustainability programs without buy-in from the general public. While it’s true that awareness of climate change impact has increased in recent years, government agencies know that it’s valuable to know what people are really saying on social media. Agencies like NASA and the EPA are collecting and sharing data about what people are tweeting and sharing on social media. By using big data, they can isolate how often people are having conversations about energy, oceans, and other issues. This can help inform campaigns about green initiatives and raise awareness about climate change issues.

5. Comparison Usage

There’s nothing like a little healthy competition to get people involved with green initiatives. At least one startup is collecting data about residential energy use from people’s homes—and comparing those numbers with their neighbors. While we might not be encouraged to use less energy on our own, most of us don’t want to be outdone by our neighbors! The company, Opower, saved about 6 billion kilowatts of energy in the first 8 years of its existence.

The Future of Green Initiatives & Big Data

Green and sustainable initiatives are not currently a global priority. While people living in developed countries have the luxury of resources to focus on these issues, not everyone can. In many developing countries, families living in poverty don’t have access or ability to participate in sustainability activities, because they have more pressing concerns that can affect their ability to feed their families and keep a shelter. Because big data applications in green initiatives have the potential to save money for governments and individuals, however, we can hopefully look forward to a future with worldwide sustainability initiatives and even more uses for big data in climate change and sustainability.