Doing Data Better conference: Quality over quantity is the mantra for success

One of the greatest challenges in handling enormous and ever-increasing amounts of data is the ability to identify what really matters to inform quality decision-making, The Scotsman’s Doing Data Better conference was told last week.

(c) 2019 Robsonphoto/Shutterstock
(c) 2019 Robsonphoto/Shutterstock

As Dr Murray Collins, a specialist in space satellite data, put it: “We are drowning in data for want of information.”

Collins, an academic and chief executive of Space Intelligence, told the online event that his company generated terabytes of data from satellites daily [one terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes].

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“How are you going to deal with this data?” he asked. “You need machine learning to be able to derive useful information for people to make decisions on. I think that’s the future – turning those huge volumes of data into information, which addresses existing questions, in our case, how you manage the natural environment.”

The discussion on Doing Data Better to tackle climate change was one of four panel sessions looking at how data can support a range of large global challenges, alongside preparing for future pandemics, addressing financial exclusion, and rebuilding the economy.

Introducing the climate change session, Professor Sandy Tudhope, University of Edinburgh lead on climate change and sustainability, said: “The creative use of data is helping address both sides of the equation, through reduction in emissions, and an increase in sequestration.”

He spoke about the “intriguing challenges” of bringing in data together meaningfully from hugely diverse sources, “from socioeconomic data to information on land tenure rights, to physical and natural science data on how plants grow and how they store carbon in soils and above ground biomass”.

This was highlighted by Luke Howard, of the Edinburgh-based Plan Vivo Foundation, which certifies projects in the developing world and provides them with carbon credits.

He said: “We provide confidence to the buyers of the carbon credits that they are of high quality, both in terms of the carbon credits but also that the projects are of high quality when it comes to helping the environment, the climate and local people on the ground.

“The aim is that buyers, by buying the carbon credits, will send funding to these projects to help them move from less sustainable activities damaging the environment into systems that are more sustainable.”

This required a real mixture of information about land and biodiversity, as well as socio-economic data, he said.

Sandy Tudhope also stressed the need for quality data on both climate change and biodiversity, as the two often did not go together.

Collins said “consistent and accurate information about the world’s land cover and changes within that” was increasingly vital to support nature-based solutions to climate change.

Space Intelligence uses mainly satellite data, but also modelling approaches about what is happening on the ground, to support a variety of projects, including many looking at reforestation in areas that have been stripped of trees.

Space Intelligence is also working closer to home. Collins described a mapping project working with NatureScot, which allowed people to look at the landscape and make decisions about how to act in future.

Dr Susan Krumdieck, a professor in the School of Energy at Heriot-Watt University and anexpert in transition engineering – which involves changing current practices to greener alternatives, without necessarily using new technology – described a research project in New Zealand that tried to optimise journey times and reduce the use of unnecessary fuel.

The study of around 500 people suggested they could still carry out 40 per cent of the activities they had planned to do using fuel by making alternative arrangements.

She said: “We asked people to say which trips were important and necessary, then work out how much fuel you’re going to need over the week, and when and where to get that fuel. You know you’re going to get fuel and not panic!”

Having all this information could help plan car-sharing and public transport more efficiently, she said, adding: “You could start to adjust demand with pricing and other things so you could start to make a dent in change.

“Without that data, without the personal interface about what people really need to do, and other ways they might be able to do it, you’re floundering around.”

Krumdieck is leader of Heriot-Watt University’s Island Centre for Net Zero, based in Orkney, with hubs in the Outer Hebrides and Shetland, which aims to engage communities that have relied very heavily on fossil fuels in the transition to a low-carbon economy. We’ve got the transition issues of North Sea oil and gas and transition issues because the lifeline of the economy is diesel ferries, and we’ve got land transport and heating using oil and gas,” she said.

“We’re working with communities, with businesses, and the big opportunity is curating your own data to engineer your own transitions, your own changes, then connecting with potential commercial providers, organisations and councils to facilitate those. It’s a pretty exciting endeavour and it’s just kicking off.

“The idea is that the platforms that we build there will scale [up], and they will have the same core functions when you go to much bigger operations.”

Collins and Howard also stressed the importance of communities being at the heart of how data is used effectively.

Collins said: “We work with project developers to bring all our satellite data analytics and expertise, and work with people on the ground who are undertaking field surveys and measurements to help us to calibrate and validate the estimates we make.

“Using the accurate algorithms and estimates of forest carbon, [they] are able to generate more carbon credits, and put more money into local communities to ensure the development of sustainable livelihoods.”

A digital version of the full conference report can be found here.