‘Useful and used’ data key to building resilience

Search for balance: This NASA image illustrates a snapshot of the Earth's endless quest to equalize the dispersion of heat, which sees winds whip around the globe.
 
By Andy McElroy

GENEVA, 20 January 2014 – The future resilience of the planet rests upon shortening the distance between emerging scientific evidence and actionable policy.

A High-Level Panel, titled ‘Perspectives on the Value of Earth Observations’, agreed on the importance of the “usability of information” in the International Strategy of Disaster Reduction and other global efforts to strengthen resilience.

Mr Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), said collaboration and coordination was crucial: “We need to join up the dots about what we know about how resources can be used and not be used in future.

“The world really is heading terribly in the wrong direction. We need to bring science to decision making. And in such a complex world, we can no longer afford the luxury of taking very narrow, specific responses.

“It is also important that we are not paralysed by waiting to have perfect information before we act. Such an approach has never been the basis for human decision making.”

Mr Steiner pointed to some “wonderful examples” of international cooperation – such as on weather patterns and pollution – that have contributed to a more resilient planet.

UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction Ms Margareta Wahlström said data had to be “useful and used”.

“There is a huge gap between the capability of science and technology and what practitioners and policymakers do with this data. Lots of the best data needs an expert to interpret it, which means that it is not sufficiently accessible,” Ms Wahlström said.

Prof. Philippe Gillet, Acting President of Ecole Polytechnique, Federale Lausanne, said data alone was useless: “It needs to be processed and fitted into models and the better the models, the better our understanding of the way our planet functions.”

He pointed to an exciting future centred on the potential of ‘Big Data’ coupled with the ubiquity of smartphones. “This is changing the way we do science. Every citizen has the potential to become a scientist.”

Mr Serge Troeber, Chief Underwriting Officer, Corporate Solutions in Swiss Re, said his company was already reaping the benefits of collaborating over data. He cited the use of satellite imagery from the European Space Agency to help assess damage from floods in Canada last year as one example.

“Climate change is affecting the insurance industry considerably; we need to consider whether today’s one-in-100 years flood is tomorrow’s one-in-30-years flood,” he said.

Ms Karine Siegwart, who is Vice Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, moderated the panel, one of the highlights of the Tenth Plenary Session of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO-X) and Ministerial Summit held in Geneva.

The Group on Earth Observations is a voluntary partnership of governments and international organisations, which is coordinating efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

The Group was launched after the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and by the G8 recognising the importance of international collaboration to support decision making in an increasingly complex and environmentally stressed world.
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