How data exhaust can help tackle climate change

Or Lenchner is CEO of Bright Data, one of the world’s leading web data companies. He oversees the Bright Initiative, a global programme that uses public web data to drive positive change.

Our world is increasingly digital, with masses of unstructured data being created everywhere, every day. It’s estimated that as a global community we create around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day – that’s 2.5 followed by a staggering 18 zeros.

Much of the data we create can be classed as alternative data, also known as external data or simply ‘alt-data’. It’s termed alternative because it differs from the traditional types of internal data that organisations have relied upon.

The term alt-data relates to data created outside an organisation – for example open access flight trackers, weather stations and satellite information, generated by machines. It also includes public online data generated by humans, such as product reviews and social media posts.

All our daily digital activities leave a lot of unstructured, messy public data in their wake – often referred to as the data exhaust, due to it being waste output from other digital activities.

But while this sounds depressingly like more polluting activity that’s reflective of a throwaway society, we now have a great opportunity to use alt-data to accelerate our response to climate change.

While it may not be very high on the agenda at COP26 in Glasgow in November, better use of data can play a big role in meeting a huge global challenge. The UK Government’s National Data Strategy recognises this, highlighting that “better use of data has the potential to help solve wider climate change problems and help the UK meet its net zero 2050 target”. But just how can we do that?

Recently-launched climate change ‘accelerator’ Subak is one example. It was established with the aim of using data to ‘supercharge’ efforts to tackle global warming and climate change. Experts there have already helped turn satellite data into cloud cover forecasts, to predict solar power output and reduce emissions from other power sources.

A coalition of industry, academia and third sector, led by National Grid ESO, has developed a Carbon Intensity API – a public data feed – that uses machine learning and power modelling to forecast the carbon-impact of electricity to people’s homes, four days ahead of time. This allows consumers to make decisions on their own levels of electricity use, based on the predicted energy mix and associated carbon footprint.

This is an impressive and powerful example of how available internal data can be used to tackle the climate crisis – and one that could be enhanced further by bringing it together with large amounts of relevant, structured and publicly available alt-data to improve accuracy of the forecasts.

There is also the chance, for example, to explore pulling together external data on meat prices from disparate sources, giving better insight on changing demands and consumer habits, helping reduce waste and over-production.

Effective use of alt-data from public social media and Web posts could also provide the electric car industry and public authorities with a richer picture on take-up rates for new green vehicles – and the unmet needs holding back greater adoption.

The amount of valuable public information chugging out from the global data exhaust will continue to grow – and we should take the opportunity to harness this ‘waste’ to tackle climate change and hit key targets. But we must do this while being compliant and responsible.

Research from the Open Data Institute suggests that people may be happy with their data being used to benefit society, but may not want that data being used to assist the investment decisions of hedge funds, for example.

Transparency and openness are key if we are to build a level of public understanding and trust that allows the future-shaping potential of alt data to be used to help safeguard the future of our planet.

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