ICT and Environment Protection

Mauri Favaron
Posted April 26, 2019 from Italy

This story is an experience, and a wish.

These days we're witnessing a renewed interest for environment, the big issues we're facing now, and the much bigger ones future has for us if we do not enough.

Thanks to Greta, and the many girls and boys who are worried for their future, we are reminded the problem exists, is very big and complex, and demands all but simplistic solutions.

ICT, used the right way, may help to save our future on this planet (and remember, we have none else).

"OK," you may now say, "show me what this "right" way is, and I will follow you."

But, may you allow me not to give another opinionated suggestion in the field? (And besides, I'm not striving to be elected - at least, not in this moment.)

Let's, instead, state some facts, which maybe are not that known beyond the clique of specialists. And, reason a little bit together, if you like, and you appreciate the contribution a mid-aged lady can give.

The first thing I'm to say is, we don't entirely know what is happening, and the future course of events, up to the minute details. Knowledge from the past and present comes from measurements, or at least they should. Projections on future demand climate models instead. Of course measurements feed the models, along with any advancement in the physics of atmosphere and its interaction with all other big systems of Earth: the biosphere, the oceans, ground and underground, the outer space...

And here come the first bad news. Measurements. They are sparse and scarce.

This might seem paradoxical, if you count the number of, say, thermometers in a big city air pollution monitoring network. But the very vast majority of these sensors are placed in places the World Meteorological Organisation would say inadequate, and their measurements are collected in cavalier spirit. That's nothing wrong with this: meteorological measurements, in an air quality network, serve a purpose which is not to assess climate change, but, rather, to have some indications about some of the forcing affecting the dispersion of atmospheric pollutants.

What I'm saying is, finding climatological stations is not really easy.

What makes a climatological, and not meteorological, station is some very specific (costly) attributes:

  • Sensible positioning (using the WMO report no.8 as guidance).
  • Use of sensors based on well-known physical principles, which are easy to calibrate.
  • Systematic calibration.
  • Systematic field assessment of calibration data (which are usually obtained in a lab, and then transported to field by physically moving sensors).
  • Systematic collection of "metadata" (calibration coefficients, maintenance logs, shape and nature of terrain nearby, ...).
  • Presence of a through data validation and quality assurance process.
  • Production of statistics of various kinds (climatological).
  • And, of course, a long history (the "climatological norm" is 30 years long).

Now. Most, if not almost all, stations placed around the Globe are "automatic reading type". In the past, they were mostly constituted by small huts hosting an array of manual reading instruments, but the activity of data collection was so expensive that now only few institution afford it. All others, went to automation: current stations are then composed by a "data logger", collecting and filtering field sensor data, maybe processing ("averaging") them, and finally sending the m to a central computer.

There, archiving and further processing take place.

With little human intervention.

Still, a lot of human activity is necessary. For calibration, metadata collection / organisation / use, sometimes even to guarantee the station remains alive at some remote dangerous place.

None of this would be possible without ICT, of course.

But returning to the original subject, that is, climatological stations, to date not only are they rare, but their spatial distribution is quite uneven. Oceans, for example, are covered very thinly. Or big desert areas. You may guess it: cover is enough where human population mostly resides, and wealth is enough to have money to spend on "low priority" (?) issues. Sites where important changes are occurring, or will do, may be under-measured if population density there is low.

This situation is changing fast, as new stations are started.

But, we're about to match a new problem, opposite-sounding to the one I told you: we might then have too much numbers.

Please consider this: there is a big difference between "numbers" and "data". The former may have even been generated at random, or with inadequate sensors, or with very good instruments without any attention to calibration.

The danger is real: Internet of Thing providers are encouraging companies and individuals to invent new applications (that is, new demand for their products), and measurements are one of the most popular.

If you look to product specs, on average find these "measurements":

  • May be extensively diffused.
  • Are usually performed with low-cose equipment.
  • Are very numerous in time - maybe one every few seconds, or minutes.
  • Their quality is unknown.

The last point is especially troublesome, and in direct contradiction with climatological applications.

But many IoT fans have an answer already: Big Data. They, more or less, say: if you amass a vast amount of numbers, you may then submit them all to data mining or some machine learning process, and the "real" pattern behind will emerge from noise.

What they're actually saying is, the entire data validation process (formerly requiring trained human intelligence) may be automated by artificial intelligence, leaving the precious skills and sensitivity of us humans ready for "something better and less mundane".

Like, for example, taking decisions on a set of data whose quality is totally unknown and, what's worse, unknowable. That's meat for endless fake news, at best.

Once more, ICT can be a saver.

We need more people willing to study and apply it to the big problems we humans, through environment's automatic but largely unknown response, is giving us already.

We need to know to what extent investing in IoT and Machine Learning is worth, and in which direction to steer its evolution through, for example, public financing.

We also need, by and large, diffused ICT literacy so that we, the humble electors, may control our representatives on such important and immediate issues.

So, please, don't listen those who still claim ICT is not for girls, and "unfeminine": it may be an important way we may care for this planet a mom would with her child, proportions accounted for. :) 

This story was submitted in response to Girls in ICT Day.

Comments 12

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Apr 26
Apr 26

Hello Mauri,
Thank you very much for this insightful article.
You raised a great point. Envrionmental degradation is a cuase for concern and yes, we humans, have to be pro active in saving our environment.

Mauri Favaron
Apr 26
Apr 26

So true..
Proactive, and, imaginific - something only young people can really be. :)

Jill Langhus
Apr 26
Apr 26

Hi Mauri,

Thanks for sharing your informative article. I think it's a great idea to use ICT, and women more, to help solve global warming.

Hope you have a great day, and weekend.

Mauri Favaron
Apr 26
Apr 26

Thanks for your appreciation! Yes, women viewpoint is necessary, specifically. :)

Jill Langhus
Apr 26
Apr 26

You're welcome:-) I totally agree!

Tamarack Verrall
Apr 27
Apr 27

Hi Mauri,
Thanks for sharing important thinking on what dictions we must take in changing the direction we are heading by destroying our environment through lack of change in how we are living on this Earth. I agree, study and documentation is important, and available to us thanks to IT. I love your main point, that we need to encourage girls. I do believe that it is the heart, perspective and priorities of women that has been missing and is so needed to create balance.

Mauri Favaron
Apr 27
Apr 27

Yes, balance! I'm fully with you! The lack of it is causing big troubles, and to make a difference we should urgently build it. That's subversive, but, much needed to date.

May 06
May 06

All thanks with ICT and to ICT. If only access is available it can mean a lot of things

Mauri Favaron
May 07
May 07

True: access is the condition before any others.

Hello, Mauri,

You are right that we only have one planet, and it is our responsibility to protect and conserve our environment. Thank you for sharing technical terms. They are very informative. ICT is a great tool to educate the world nowadays. It's a tool to share good practices on environmental protection, and them viral. We all need to take accountability, and we can use the power of ICT to make this a global action. Thanks again for the idea!

Mauri Favaron
May 07
May 07

Thanks for your warm appreciation!

ICT, used the right way, may give a big contribution to make the World a better place.

And (my feeling) a lot of vigilant attention is also necessary, to prevent mis-uses whose consequences might be really dangerous to us living being all.

You’re welcome! I love how you are so passionate about this. Please keep posting your thoughts here.