Big data and sustainability: citizen efficiency in the cloud

NaN-tic Mar 30, 2022

Surely you have ever heard the phrase "information is power" and so it is, but it is not enough to obtain the information, you have to choose it, understand it, relate it, in short, manage it efficiently. Today's world is more interconnected than ever, the network of networks, the Internet, allows universal access and sharing of a huge amount of information. While, in principle, free data empowers people, it only brings this benefit if we are able to manage it properly; otherwise, this huge amount of data without architecture or quality is easily the opposite of empowerment.

Precisely for the benefit of architecture and data quality, technologies are being developed all over the world. Projects and technologies that, in addition to improving the management and quality of data, contribute to the good health of the environment, favor the liberation of knowledge and the exchange of ideas that promote innovation. Sustainability depends on and is affected by this flow of data on the Internet.


Big data and sustainability


To deepen these projects we asked the expert in big data management and data quality, Joan Masó.

Dr. Joan Masó (PhD in Geography, Master in Physics and Master in Electronic Engineering at the UAB) is principal investigator of the research group on geospatial interoperability and remote sensing at CREAF (Center for Ecological Research and Forest Applications). Co-creator and software developer of MiraMon (a Geographic Information System and remote sensing software that allows the visualization, consultation, editing and analysis of both raster data, that is, images formed by pixels, from satellites, and topographic data in vector format, as well as its creation). He is also an active member of the Technical Committee of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) community that creates free and publicly available geospatial standards that make new technologies possible. Collaborator of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC). Active member of the Group on Earth Observations, involved with the observation of data for the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Finally, he participates in the Cos4Cloud project. This project was born in 2019 because one of the biggest challenges of citizen science is the quality of the data, as well as the maintenance of the citizen observatories where this data is collected, for all this Cos4Cloud develops 10 technological services to improve citizen scientific platforms.


Standards, visual (images) and free, is that what we call the "quality of the data"?

Just for geospatial data, there should be about a hundred different standards for data management. Some are concerned with describing data formats (such as GeoTIFF), others that data can be found (such as OpenSearch), others define data protocols to exchange some of the information needed to create a visualization (such as the Web Map Tile Service of which I am one of the authors) and there are also those that define how to measure and quantify the quality and uncertainties that affect the data (such as the ISO 19157). The idea is always the same: to ensure that a job is done in a known way so that it can be exchanged or communicated. It's the same idea behind plugs like USB or the European electricity connector: they work on all plugs because they're standard.


Why are big data management projects in the cloud indispensable for the sustainability of the planet?

To guarantee the sustainability of the planet we need a global vision. This vision is provided by remote sensing satellites such as the European Space Agency's Sentinel series. For a small territory, such as Catalonia, it is still possible to download the data and process it on a computer. But to conduct global studies we can only do it in the cloud. The Google Earth Engine is an example of a cloud that has a lot of well-organized remote sensing information and provides analysis tools. Once the type of study you want to do is defined, it can be executed within the cloud on a global scale.


Often when we talk about technologies and scratch until we find the beginning of their development, we end up finding military research, it would be the case of the Internet itself that we all use, of the RFID that today floods all shops, airports and logistics movements, and surely also, I venture to assume, much of the technology used in cartography. On the other hand, now and thanks to the global interconnection that citizens enjoy, we hear more and more about concepts such as citizen science, citizen observatories, citizen scientific platforms.

What are the most important challenges that all these projects face, in relation to communication, relevance, achievement of objectives ...?

There are many things we could talk about. The first problem is to encourage people on the problem you want to study. There are activities, such as the observation of biodiversity or the classification of galaxies by shape, that are attractive to many people. You just have to connect with them, and make it very easy and a little fun. Surely we will need a very clear app and a reliable system. But that is not all because we will have to thank and take care of the citizens so that they feel rewarded and return to participate or encourage other people to contribute. But data collection is not everything. There must be a goal behind which the participants share, such as the defense of the natural environment, the influence on the established powers or perhaps the progress of knowledge or society.


The discordant note we run into when talking about sustainability and big data, is that precisely the Internet produces 2% of global CO2 emissions (according to the BBC). The main expense comes from inefficiency in data management and energy waste, such as servers that are only occupied between 20% and 40% in data-centers (according to Forbes), millions of emails that are neither opened nor deleted from mailboxes, the indispensable cooling systems that are not fed 100% green energy. It seems that the large corporations involved are doing their homework, with very varied initiatives ranging from installing their servers in northern Sweden to reduce consumption in cooling, to developing artificial intelligence machines to improve the efficiency in the use of servers.

In your opinion, Joan, how can citizens and citizen platforms of all kinds do our homework?

I guess there are so many things we could do that it's hard to set an example. Personally, I think we are wasting the knowledge that citizens could gather about their own consumption patterns, without invading anyone's privacy, we would surely discover where to put our priorities. And if they could give every citizen a way to determine their impact and personalized recipes for how to reduce it... Imagine a system similar to the GPS of the mobile that, instead of giving us the fastest route, always gave us the most optimal solution to reduce our impact on any of our activities; without advertising or influences of lobbies: only from a rigorous analysis of the data.


What are your future projects, are there any new projects related to data and sustainability that you have in mind?

Do you know what happens? That if we talk about citizen science, people think that's free and it's not true. For the reasons I have explained before, it takes a team of people constantly working so that the systems that hold citizens together work and take care of each of the participants. Fortunately, the European Commission believes in citizen participation as a vehicle to demonstrate that investments in scientific projects leave no one behind and encourages us to look for new ways. It has just started a European project called ILIAD that wants to make a digital twin of the oceans and has a branch of citizen science in which we participate. We also want to continue studying the changes in the rhythms of nature from a tandem that we have established between the remote sensing data that look at the cycles of the vegetation from afar, and the citizen observers who step on the territory and send us photographs of the moment of flowering of the trees or when they lose the leaves (


Thank you very much Joan for your time and thanks also to CREAF for having facilitated this interview.

This is the first article with which we started a series dedicated to how technology helps us to be greener and make our activities more sustainable.

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