How understanding complex data can address environmental challenges

Matthew Farrow, director of the Environmental Industries Commission, speaking at the Green Data conference on 27 November 2018.

As scientists across the world continue to wrestle with projections and understand better some of the biggest environmental challenges, the sharing of data and making it accessible to more will allow for better informed decisions on vital issues, industry leaders have said.

The Green Data conference, held today in central London, focuses on how technological innovations in data science are transforming the practice of engineering, infrastructure and environment.

The event, organised by the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), brought together expert speakers from the Natural Environment Research Council, Office for National Statistics, Greater London Authority, Environment Agency and PwC.

Kicking off the conference, Matthew Farrow, executive director of the EIC, said more data means more scope for conclusion-inspired data selection, while better understanding of complex environmental problems issues (and discovery of new ones) will raise new policy (and moral) challenges. By making digital tools and data more open, this will raise awareness of environmental issues and change public attitudes, Farrow added.

Professor Gordon Blair of the Data Science Institute at Lancaster University told delegates that they should be confident in working in a sector that has access to a wide range of rich environmental data from which to develop solutions to complex challenges. 

Blair talked about the creation of the institute, which aims to set the global standard for an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary data-driven research challenges, and comprises a broad community of data-driven researchers in a variety of disciplines including the environmental sciences, health and medicine, sociology and the creative arts.

"More people need to be knocking down doors, it's vital the next generation of data scientists are working in the environmental realm."
Professor Gordon Blair, Lancaster University

But the professor claimed there needed to be far more people within data science working on environmental issues, Blair used the example of the Alan Turing Institute and how he only found one person working on challenges in the sector as a side hobby.

“We need to ask who is helping to find solutions?” he said. “How many will you find working on environmental challenges? The answer is not many. More people need to be knocking down the doors of these places, it’s vital the next generation of data scientists are working in the environmental realm.”

It was argued the development of data science principles and techniques for sense making and decision support related to the natural environment was needed moving forward and now was the time to innovate and to look for cutting-edge techniques.

The Data Science Institute at Lancaster University has ten challenges which it wants the sector to achieve including a cultural shift to open transparent science, addressing complexity more fundamentally and supporting quantification and reasoning around end-to-end certainty.

“It’s all about collaboration and getting teams together to share skills and that’s where the excitement is when you see the hydrologist talking to the ecologist,” Blair added. “We need data scientists working with computer scientists so they can take advantage of the tools available.”

Delegates also heard how the implementation of data science will inform people better on questions of huge significance like ice sheet melting and sea level rises while reducing the uncertainty around projections for the future. 

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