Location Data Reveals Our Changing Planet
Antarctic Peninsula in spring.
Credit: NASA.

Nancy Colleton, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Earlier this month, a group of policy and legal experts from around the world met at an event co-hosted by the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy and Harvard University's Center for Geographic Analysis to examine the challenges related to our ever-evolving location-enabled society. It was a truly fascinating event with eye-opening presentations on smart transportation systems, tweet-mapping and Google Glass.

As experts openly debated the good and bad of the current Wild West era of geospatial technologies, it became clear that its current and sometimes lawless advancement is influencing trends in more traditional, related areas, such as Earth observations and environmental information.

Consider the following: Last week, Climate Central posted a report that found that "Six months after [Superstorm] Sandy, data from the eight hardest hit states shows that 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into rivers, bays, canals, and in some cases city streets, largely as a result of record storm-surge flooding that swamped the region's major sewage treatment facilities." About the same time, Space Daily published a story on how development banks are using Earth observations to better monitor and track projects and investment globally. The BBC and NPR, in turn, reported that digitized Nimbus 1 satellite data from 1964 clarified the extent of ice cover in the Antarctic at that time, confirming the theory that sea ice is shrinking.

Those very different stories have much in common. They all illustrate the importance of geospatial technologies in better identifying, understanding and managing changing environmental conditions.

But, as we look at the changing planet and try to determine how best to respond or adapt to its uncertainty, we can be certain that:

  • People want and need environmental information like never before;
  • Demand coupled with new technologies and resources will enable access and application of that data and information like never before; and
  • With personal, economic, and national security interests driving the use of that information, new policy and legal issues will arise like never before.

Some of those issues are the changing roles of the public and private sector, calls for more open data and information policies, and the demand for environmental information.

Changing roles

Last year, the Weather Channel began to name winter storms. TWC determined that communication of winter-weather situations is simplified and improved by using storm names to refer to impactful, but often complex, winter weather scenarios, and that consumers will better appreciate and understand the impacts of winter storms and be more likely to take action when the conversation is simplified with names. The decision met with much criticism in the traditional, primarily academic meteorological community. As one person said, "Who are they to name storms?"  TWC's response:  "Why not?"  They argued that no one else was doing it and the storms could be just as threatening as a hurricane, leaving people stranded or without power. They believed that people needed to take caution and prepare, just as they would for a hurricane, which is named by the National Weather Service. [Why the Snowstorm Is Named 'Nemo']

As demand for more information grows, the creation and delivery mechanisms will become more decentralized and the communication will stem from a variety of sources other than traditional, federal entities. This will also be evident across the entire environmental information supply chain — whether or not private companies are collecting the data or creating information products.

Open access to environmental information

One of the most significant polices Americans may see implemented in the near future involves the Open Environmental Information Services, or OpenEIS. Developed by the Environmental Information Services Working Group of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Science Advisory Board, the concept is based on greater engagement from NOAA with the national weather and climate community (business, academia, and NGOs) to identify strategies, policies and mechanisms to allow greater access to and use of its vast data and information resources.

OpenEIS intends to help overcome the barriers that exist to either distribute or access all of NOAA's data and adopt the symbiotic development of algorithms, instruments and technologies to optimize new services. If implemented, OpenEIS will require major policy changes to allow engagement with nonfederal entities to have access to currently limited information and to engage those entities earlier in the product- and service-development process.

The Obama administration's recent release of an Open Data Policy — which seeks to make government data available in open, machine-readable formats to allow entrepreneurs, researchers and others to generate new products and services — aligns with the adoption of policies like OpenEIS. The policy draws on the example of existing innovation in the commercial weather sector, which can only grow as environmental information as a whole becomes more accessible.

Environmental intelligence

Farmers want to know what crops to plant. Golf course managers want to know how much water they may need to keep their fairways green. Construction companies want to know if, and when, heat waves will impact their workers and production schedules.

The majority of information now being used to make those decisions is based on our government's multibillion dollar investment in data collection and analysis, which yields authoritative information, but which was intended to answer specific science inquiries, not business or economic questions. With most of our information coming from global observing systems, applying that global science data to local business or societal problems can present a major challenge. In addition, our best information may not always be complete or the right information for the problem.

The recently released National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations, produced by the Executive Office of the President's National Science and Technology Council, acknowledges this issue noting "While Earth observations are typically produced for a specific purpose, they are often found to be useful for additional purposes not foreseen during the development of the observation system."

As more and more decision makers look for strategic business advantage and insight to better prepare for the future, more specialized and actionable information products are needed that deliver true environmental intelligence. Will legal questions arise with the use of those intelligence products?  Is there, for example, liability associated with the development of new home-building standards or urban development plans informed by environmental information products and services?

In the Wild West era of geospatial technology advancement, it is clear that our location-enabled society is increasingly vulnerable to changes in environmental conditions. As decision makers become more aware of these connections to their interests and bottom lines, demand for environmental intelligence is only going to grow.

Whether it be furthering open-access policies, redefining public and private roles, or reassessing the drivers shaping our observations, it is clear that a set of legal and policy challenges are emerging along with those new opportunities, and that the environmental information community must also adapt to a changing planet.

Read Colleton's Recent Op-Ed: As Weather Changes, Forecasts Lag

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.