How can we use public web data to tackle the climate crisis?

Posted in: Clean Technology

Posted on: 28.10.2021

This guest article is by Keren Pakes, General Manager of The Bright Initiative - a global programme that uses public web data to drive positive change.

We all live increasingly digital lives. According to Ofcom, last year in the UK we spent an average of 3 hours and 37 minutes a day on the internet – up nearly ten minutes from 2019.

All this internet activity, from online shopping to updating social media, generates an awful lot of data. Data is so important to modern society that we have a national strategy for it, with a Minister responsible for it. The blog you are reading is public web data. Your social media posts and online reviews are mostly considered public data.

It’s estimated that as a global community we create around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day – that’s 2.5 followed by a staggering 18 zeros. And a big chunk of this data is pretty messy. It's also located in different places and of limited use in its raw state.

By 2025, it’s estimated that 80% of this huge amount of data worldwide will be of this messy type whose proper name is unstructured data. It will flow from social media, streaming audio and video, as well as from machines and sensors.

Some of this data is known as ‘exhaust data’ residual outputs of our daily digital lives, quickly forgotten about. But far from being useless, and this may surprise you, this messy data could be a potential gold mine in our efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

Person with long curly brown hair  and a yellow top using a laptop.

How could this data be used to help us lead greener lives?

When you post publicly on social media, aside from the main content, there might be date, time and location data with it. If posts containing certain phrases were to be pulled together and anonymised and privatised for people in a certain geographic area over a whole year, it could tell us all sorts of important things. Insights could include the factors that subtly affect energy usage in that area or that stop people from living greener lifestyles and what influences how they choose to travel. This type of public data is generated millions of times a day. Just imagine if we could actually use it to benefit and tackle climate change worldwide.

Electric car plugged into a city centre charge point.

For those organisations and public bodies with responsibility for responding to the climate challenge, this approach could deliver hugely important insight that may lead to faster adoption of everything from electric vehicles to cavity wall insulation to greener shopping habits.

This type of anonymised public data could also be fed to very powerful and smart data-driven systems so they can ‘learn’ more about our habits, helping them make more accurate predictions for our benefit.

So, we know that during big England football matches there can be spikes in power demand as people switch on kettles and lights during intervals. Meanwhile, consumption can also dip during the game as everyone gathers around the television.

By pulling together and analysing public social media posts and other publicly available web-based data across a whole tournament, we could learn more about the nation’s habits, which could help our predictions and ensure more efficient energy generation in the future.

If you hire an e-scooter to get around a city, you might leave a public review or make a comment on social media, tagging in the company. Bringing this publicly available data together from people in cities across the UK could help planners and policymakers understand more about the pros and cons of this lower-carbon mode of transport.

How are organisations already using data to reduce carbon emissions?

Using data to improve our response to climate change isn't just hypothetical. Real projects include a Carbon Intensity predictor has been set up in the UK by National Grid ESO and others. It uses data and powerful machine learning to forecast the carbon-impact of electricity on people’s homes, four days ahead of time. This allows businesses and individuals to use ‘data for good’ and play their part in tackling climate change by adjusting energy usage according to the predicted carbon impact on a particular day.

How do we make sure data is used responsibly?

Electricity pylons next to train tracks.

These examples are very much the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what is possible. But of course, we must remember that even though data may be public rather than private, it must be used in a way that is compliant and responsible.

Research from the Open Data Institute suggests that, in general, we are happy with our data being used to benefit society but are not so keen on companies using it for profit; for example it being used to assist hedge funds to make investment decisions.

At The Bright Initiative, we believe openness and transparency are key to building understanding and trust in the use of public data, alongside access to programmes to support greater data literacy. If you want to boost your knowledge and understanding about data, the Data Literacy Project is a great place to start.

While data sounds complicated and may not grab the headlines at COP26 next month, as a digital society we should be open to the amazing opportunity we have to utilise the valuable public data and specifically public web data we all generate, every single day.

Keren Pakes

Keren Pakes is the General Manager of The Bright Initiative, a global programme that uses public web data to drive positive change across social and environmental issues.


Read more stories by Keren Pakes

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