Data Mania: Better Tech Needed to Crunch Climate Change Data


Both Google and the government have taught us at least one important lesson: data rules. But despite supercomputers, sophisticated sensors and software from the smartest people on the planet, precise data is still lacking when it comes to fighting climate change. On Friday, U.S. officials said they will develop what they called the “first-ever, comprehensive and up-to-date database” of satellite images that will show land-use changes around the world.

The announcement, made from Beijing as the U.S. delegation powwowed with those from 85 countries and 58 other organizations to build the “Global Earth Observation System of Systems,” or GEOSS. GEOSS sounds grand and that’s the point: it wants to link all sorts of observation and data collection systems worldwide and promote technical standards and tools to speed up information gathering and processing.

Through a single Internet portal, governments, researchers and organizations can access and use the data for crafting economic and environmental policies. The international community is half way through a 10-year plan to build GEOSS.

The new effort will collect and present more detailed data about how humans use and impact their environment in urban and rural settings. Those details, like the amount of tree and shrub coverage and water on the surface of the Earth, will help researchers or even companies to create better forecasts of environmental changes, including the impact of global warming.

Increasingly, tech companies are using this growing amount of government (and often free) data for their own projects, or to process and sell the refined datasets to others. Solar power plant developers, for example, are always on the lookout for better historical data and meteorological forecasts about the amount and intensity of sunlight in areas they want to build solar farms. Utilities use satellite-based weather forecasting data to help manage the power grid.

Private companies have huge incentives – profits! – to come up with better software to make sense of the jumble of information from satellites and other data collection systems. The growth of the greentech industry, from renewable energy generation to biofuel production, will need to rely on more detailed and accurate data.

AWS Trupower, for one, is getting $2.15 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to assemble data and create computer models to help the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to more accurately predict when and where wind energy will be produced at any given time. ERCOT is the largest electric grid operator in Texas, which leads the country in wind generation. The state has roughly 9,730 megawatts of wind energy generation capacity, followed by Iowa at 3,670 megawatts and California at around 2,740 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Google could one day get into weather forecasting, too. An advisor for Google Ventures said this week that he and the search engine giant were interested in working with companies in some way to create more accurate and useful weather forecasting data. Companies such as IBM already are selling weather forecasting services to utilities, and startups like EcoFactor incorporate weather data into their automated demand response services.

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Image courtesy of NASA.

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