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Shared problems require shared solutions: how to unlock data for people and the planet


6 mins read

The idea of combatting climate change may conjure up ideas for minimizing your own carbon footprint, such as driving an electric vehicle, decreasing plane travel, and installing solar panels. These small actions are indeed helpful. But a problem of such massive scale will require a response in equal measure. Such a response necessitates collaborative global action, and to get anywhere close to our climate goals we must harness one of the greatest tools available to us: digital technology.  

As a result of the ever-expanding use of digital technologies, digital data exists in nearly every aspect of our world. Financial data, health data, census data, satellite data – the list goes on and on. This data often exists in siloes, bound by geographic locations, industries, and individual organizations. With the growing momentum to expand digital public infrastructure (DPI), we have an opportunity to build the secure, cross-border data-sharing infrastructure needed to generate, share, and use the data needed to accelerate climate action. 

To harness data for climate action, digital public infrastructure must expand beyond traditional borders.

The benefits of DPI at the national level are increasingly understood and accepted. This year, the G20 officially adopted language recognizing the social and economic benefits of this integrated approach to designing, deploying, and delivering core digital infrastructure including digital ID, payments, and data exchange for the benefit of people and communities. Countries as diverse as Estonia, India, and Mozambique are showing how DPI, when done right, powers public and private sector innovation that improves lives. 

At the same time, we know that national-level DPI is not sufficient to tackle most climate-related challenges. Climate change does not respect borders, or other traditional silos including, for example, the public and private sectors. These silos keep the data needed to realize regional and global benefits fragmented and unavailable to key decision makers. 

DPI has the potential to help mitigate the impacts of climate change through better, faster, and more data for decision-making. However, productive, cross-regional data sharing faces several challenges: commercial data holders don’t want their business models to be eviscerated by sharing proprietary data, while multilateral and national organizations have both data privacy concerns and an inability to safely share data. 

  1. Technology. We need to create interoperable systems that can securely and quickly share data across sectors, institutions, and countries. 
  2. Governance. We need to have models for inclusive decision-making that build trust and create incentives for sharing data. Governance includes creating robust mechanisms for consent of any actor sharing data (a government, company, or person), and engaging users of data in decision-making so that they are confident in its accuracy and in their capability to understand its implications.  
  3. Financing. We need to establish predictable, affordable ways to sustain cross-border data-sharing infrastructure.  
Birds-eye view of a forest with overlay of technical mapping
Using satellite imagery to analyze forests and track deforestation helps us to monitor and combat the harmful effects of deforestation on our planet.

New models are emerging that show how digital public infrastructure can unlock data for climate action.

While we don’t have the perfect answers to these questions yet, let’s explore how three data sharing platforms are attempting to overcome these challenges to proactively solve concrete problems resulting from climate change. 

Digital Earth Africa and Digital Earth Pacific

Digital Earth Africa condenses decades of freely available satellite data to provide near real-time understanding of the changing environment, such as coastline erosion, marine ecosystem health, land use, and weather patterns. Digital Earth Africa has established an inclusive governance model that includes the governments who are the key users of the data outputs. The World Economic Forum estimates that the services provided through Digital Earth Africa can generate $2.3 billion in economic benefits annually for the continent, through an investment of only $7 million per year.  

This model is now being applied and adapted to Pacific Island Countries and Territories, who despite being severely impacted by climate disasters, have some of the lowest access and capabilities for applying satellite data. With a similar multi-stakeholder and inclusive governance model that brings together 8 member countries and 7 regional and international partners on strategic guidance, Digital Earth Pacific (DEP) is already having concrete impact. For example, the Pacific Community (SPC) who hosts DEP is working with the Governments of Tonga and Vanuatu on agricultural analysis for food security; with Fiji on illegal mineral extraction from riverbeds; and has generated a coastline change, freshwater extent, and mangroves product over multiple years for every island across the Pacific. These two models have developed strong approaches to governance, as well as interoperable open-source technology, and open data, but more work needs to be done on a sustainable financing model that is tied to country-led investment.  

Climate Emergency Software Alliance

In another groundbreaking example, the Climate Emergency Software Alliance (CESA) is working at the forefront of disaster risk reduction and inclusive climate adaptation. CESA’s flagship product, CogniCity OSS, combines information from government agencies with social media data to create a comprehensive map of need, response, and recovery in the midst of a natural disaster. The information is displayed in a freely available, web-based, mobile-centric map that helps to democratize access to accurate and reliable information for first responders and residents alike. CESA’s governance model is based around a Founding Committee and Global Secretariat that set the strategic direction and oversee implementation, but the members are made up of a global network of community organizations, governments, and other stakeholders interested in deploying the technology in their city. In its mission to scale CogniCity OSS from millions of users in Southeast Asia to billions of users globally, CESA will establish Regional Hubs and National Nodes worldwide. To do this, it is implementing Advisory and Technical Boards to provide additional guidance and mentorship to new members in new geographic locations.  

As an open-source solution, CogniCity faces similar challenges as other OSS projects – mainly, it requires a healthy community of volunteers to continue to build and maintain it, and the funding to support its growth. 

The PLACE Trust

PLACE takes a different approach, which attempts to solve the financing question by setting up a club goods model, where members pay a small annual fee to access all the data that PLACE collects and stewards. Once in the club, members choose one of two license types for derived works. If the derived works produced from PLACE data are sold for commercial gain, there is a one-time commercial fee charged by PLACE to that member. If a member is deriving works and not charging commercially, then there are no additional fees and that member is required to share the derived work at no cost to others. All data produced in partnership with PLACE belongs to the government of each country.

Charging commercial fees for derived works allows PLACE to transition away from grant funding to a more long-term model. Through this model, PLACE plans to become self-financing, providing a solution to today’s inequality of mapping data.  

These mapping applications are just one way that DPI and open data are helping to accelerate climate action. We envision many new areas where data can be applied – from improved carbon market trading to green financing and traceability, monitoring, reporting, and verification of carbon emissions, and likely others yet to be uncovered.  

There’s a lot of work to do, and we all have a role to play.

There has been a lot of progress made in recent years to establish the DPI approach in diverse countries. Yet, we know that national-level DPI without significant international data sharing is not sufficient to tackle the climate crisis. We need collective action to develop models for data sharing that overcome technical, governance, and financing constraints to operating across existing silos. To do this, we need to bridge the gap between the climate data space and those working on refining good practices for data exchange and governance within the broader DPI landscape. 

To foster this much needed collaboration, the Digital Impact Alliance is spearheading a joint learning network focused on data exchange for climate action. Through this initiative, we hope to coalesce a diversity of partners, including governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector, around the necessary enabling factors for unlocking data for climate response, specifically governance frameworks that support trustworthy and effective data sharing. Convenings will focus on sharing learnings, knowledge, insights to foster innovation and document best-practices for tackling these challenges.  

Climate change is a global concern; mitigation must be a global priority. As we work to foster a greener world through innovative DPI and data solutions, we would love for you to stay engaged with us. Let us know:  

  • What data do you need to access for your priority areas?  
  • What data do you have to share for others to leverage?  
  • What challenges do you have and what opportunities have you identified? 
  • What other expertise can you bring to this conversation? 

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