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Data and Information Technology for the Environment: The Earth’s Environment Needs the Best Tools Too

Friday, September 13, 2019
Wayne S. Balta

Wayne S. Balta

Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs & Product Safety, IBM Corporation

Our world is flooded with data, and the amount of data continues to increase exponentially. In a prior era, data primarily meant numbers. They were rather orderly, and they would typically be presented in a relatively structured way. That’s not the case today, however.

Data now are far more diverse and unstructured: words from a document that has been scanned into a computer; content of texts and tweets; website URLs; and photos and videos and more. And the continued generation of these data is what’s normal in our world today. If you’re a young adult, a student, or a child, this characterizes the world into which you were born, and it’s normal to you. 

In the meantime, the information technology (I/T) industry has brought forth several tools that collect or process data and extract value from it. You can think of them as part of a modern-day toolbox.

  • For example, big data technologies can look at large quantities of disparate data, and analytics software can detect patterns and meanings that humans can’t observe or identify quite as quickly as a machine can.
  • Internet-of-things technologies are an example of another such tool. They can generate, collect, and broadcast (i.e., share) data wirelessly across time and space pretty much anywhere you want to do so.
  • Another tool is machine learning, which is an aspect of artificial intelligence (AI). With machine learning, a computer system learns from data rather than from programming instructions. Machines can ingest large quantities of data and learn from these data as the machine finds patterns and makes inferences. The more data machines ingest, the more they learn. They learn how to predict what’s next, and they can do that on their own without relying upon a set of programmed instructions.
  • Yet another tool you can find in today’s tech toolbox is natural language processing, which is also an aspect of AI. With natural language processing, machines and devices (including consumer devices) can understand human conversation in various languages; turn those spoken words into data; extract meaning; and make judgements and decisions about the data they just processed (all at a tremendous speed).
  • And then there’s blockchain, a relatively new I/T tool involving data. With a blockchain, different parties can come together and create an immutable, digital ledger of transactions (i.e., data) that are of interest to them. Participants can have access to the data on the blockchain, but they cannot thereafter alter the data. With a blockchain, think of “open book” or radical transparency.

These are some of the tools that the I/T industry has created and which are now available to extract value from huge quantities of diverse data that already exist and which people continue to generate at an extraordinary, unprecedented pace.

So, given that we have these data and these sophisticated tools, what are people doing with them? As it turns out, some pretty amazing things, some of which are very important. For example, people are using data and these tools to improve the delivery of healthcare, public safety, disaster response and recovery; and trust and safety in the food we eat.

At the same time, people are doing things more geared toward consumerism. By this, I mean things such as “open my garage door,” “dim the lights,” and “play my favorite song.” My personal favorite: send me unending advertisements for something to buy because I happened to look at it just once on a website; or send me unwanted advertisements for something just because I was speaking about it with my spouse during dinner in our smart device-enabled home. These are also things that people are doing with data and I/T tools. And you’re no doubt familiar with more.

What does any of this have to do with the environment? Not enough. For the environment, we are not constructively using data and these tools nearly enough. There are certainly some outstanding uses, but we need for the very best I/T tools to be applied to matters of the environment more readily. As I mentioned before, our kids are born into a world where the existence and generation of diverse data are normal. To them, that’s the way it’s always been.

But think also about what kids in many parts of world also see as the way it’s always been. Plastic waste spread across the land and floating not only in our coastal oceans, but also circulating wherever currents may take it. Particles of pollutants still in the air we breathe in increasingly crowded cities around the world. Shrinking quantities of clean, fresh potable water. Threats to habitats and species. A climate that is unfamiliar and changing and potentially dangerous to many of our ways of living. Regrettably, these things are what way too many kids across the world see as what’s normal and the way it’s always been.

Think about this. Let’s say you’re at home—at least in the developed world—at your apartment or house or wherever you may live. Let’s say you discover an important problem. Something is broken. You need to fix it, and you need some tools to get the job done. So, you go to a home improvement store to get some tools. When you get there, would you ask for an old wrench? Would you ask for an old saw? Or for an old hammer and a box of rusty nails? Would you say I’d like to buy a drill from the 1950s please? No, you wouldn’t say any of that. You would want contemporary, modern tools—the best ones available. So, why don’t we collectively do a better job of demanding that the best available tools get applied to the place where we all live?

I don’t mean to suggest there are no existing uses of data and these I/T tools to improve the environment. There are. Experts at my company, IBM, and others are developing quite a few (some of IBM’s work in this space includes protecting freshwater, improving plankton populations, harnessing clean water, providing AI and other tools for farmers, and developing a solar power app for use in Africa). But collectively, across the world, we need a greater demand for them. And please don’t take these remarks to be self-serving. There already exists a huge and sustained appetite to deploy these tools for other needs and desires as cited earlier. I/T companies will be doing just fine. The business is there. The technologies exist. They’re as affordable as they’ve ever been. What we could use is a sustained appetite for applying them to environmental sustainability.

The challenge as I see it is to collectively figure out how to demand that today’s most advanced information technologies get used to tackle environmental problems that matter across the world. There’s no company named “the environment” that will instinctively demand these tools. There’s no government named “the environment” that will do so. The trick is to bridge the ways society organizes itself to cause the best technologies to routinely be demanded and become applied for environmental protection. If we can do that, the environment into which kids are born should increasingly become less like the way it’s always been.

Interested in exploring environmental protection in an era of transformative technological change? On October 1-3, ELI will be in Seattle, WA, to host GreenTech: Innovating Environmental Protection for the Future, where leaders from some of the world’s most innovative companies will engage with policymakers, technologists, NGOs, and others to find workable solutions in this space. Learn more at https://www.greentechconference.org/.