'Big Data' Is an Investment in Nature -- and Human Well-being

The foundation of Conservation International (CI) is built upon the integration of comprehensive data and responsive science. Those committed to this premise invest in good data and sound measurement tools to understand how nature is changing. These tools must be utilized to investigate whether humanity's use of nature's life-supporting services is sustainable or not. Just as regular doctor visits can help keep people healthy, the early detection of planetary problems is crucial to our survival.

Last week in Barcelona, we announced a visionary partnership with Hewlett Packard (HP) called HP Earth Insights. This program will revolutionize the way we monitor, report and understand the health of ecosystems.

Environmental scientists across the globe will be able to put their field research findings into mobile HP tablets and analyze and share that data in visual, user-friendly dashboards that reveal tropical changes in near real-time. HP Earth Insights will help us link tropical forest data with other data repositories at the Smithsonian Institution and Wildlife Conservation Society, and connect the dots to further populate a measure of tropical forest biodiversity known as the Wildlife Picture Index.

Previously, most indices of biodiversity were based on data from scientific literature, which has a long lag time from collection to publication. This meant that policymakers were making decisions based on information that was often five years old. Big data and information technology will help us change that.

As part of the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, CI and 83 partners in 16 countries across Africa, the Americas and Asia have been meticulously gathering data on changes in biomass, biodiversity, species distribution and other indicators of ecosystem health. The data from this network offers decision makers an early warning system designed to identify potentially harmful changes arising within Earth's ecosystems.

TEAM focuses on tropical forests because they are central to Earth's life-support system. These ecosystems produce 40% of the oxygen we breathe, they filter much of the fresh water that feeds and supports us and they are a source of life-saving medicines. Tropical forests also contain more than half the species on the planet, store huge amounts of the carbon we emit and support productive agriculture, making them a source of livelihood for more than 1.6 billion people. Knowing whether these forests are flourishing or ailing is central to our very well-being.

Our scientists have recorded more than 3 million climate measurements in tropical forests and taken more than 1.4 million photographs of their diverse and wondrous animal inhabitants, using remote heat and motion-triggered camera traps throughout the TEAM Network sites. To my knowledge, TEAM is the only network that covers multiple rainforests and is coordinated in its methods and analysis.

The ability to quickly synthesize the telltale signs of ecosystem decline -- and getting that information into the hands of leaders in time for them to make informed decisions -- has become a priority for CI and its partners. This is why the HP Earth Insights partnership is so ground-breaking.

When we started TEAM 10 years ago, after it was proposed by longtime CI board member and information technology pioneer Gordon Moore, we faced a number of challenges. TEAM scientists were going into the field armed with clipboards and recording their observations and data on paper. That took prohibitively long to analyze. Our partners at HP saw this challenge as an opportunity to form a partnership that would allow us to harness the power of big data to better guide big decisions.

This investment in gathering, synthesizing and sharing new data is necessary for creating a society that can weather the pressures of change. Over the next century, the world's population will grow to over 9 billion people. We will double our demand for food, energy and water, and the changing climate will continue to exacerbate the uncertainties we face. Nature is the most cost-effective source we have to meet these demands. Monitoring its health will be key to ensuring a continual supply of the natural capital it provides to all of us.

The pressures on ecosystems around the globe have never been greater, and the stakes have never been higher. We have the knowledge to develop sustainably -- and now we have the tools. Nature will go on with or without us. We, however, cannot survive without nature.

Peter Seligmann is CI's co-founder, chairman and CEO. This post was originally published on Conservation International's blog, Human Nature.

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