Environmental leadership and leveraging investments in the age of big data

From the Commissioner
Victoria's State Control Centre is harnessing the power of big data

The main game for the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Victoria in terms of environmental reporting is to provide access to better independent and objective information about Victoria’s natural environment, to make better decisions and deliver better outcomes for the environment and community. That’s why I have been advocating the need and opportunity for governments to invest in big data and analytics for environmental management and protection. Today I want to build on that vision and move from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’.

How do environmental leaders find, develop and invest in new big data tools and access real time data to assist with decision making?

The “State and Benefit” Framework for the 2018 Victorian State of the Environment (SoE) report, tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 2015, set out a framework for state of environment reporting and signalled the need to start a journey of reform in the tools we need to develop as environmental reporters – including a shift to digital.

The 2016 State of the Bays report was the first delivered under the Framework and like that, the 2018 Victorian State of The Environment report will also be accessible for the first time, in multiple formats for a diverse audience. It will align with related reports and tell a story about catchments to coasts and marine by linking reports through new data and scientific indicators developed during the reporting cycle.

It is exciting to be a part of the shift in Victoria’s state level environmental science and reporting but there’s a bigger goal for me than digitally accessible reports and interpretative websites. Within a decade, I envision new operating models in the Victorian environment portfolio exploiting the Internet of Things and using big data analytics, shared/open access geospatial platforms for the display of live monitor feeds, real time sensor data, along with access to a vast range of more static environmental data sets will be well established.

We have the opportunity now to shift our operational capabilities and how we understand and manage the environment in real time, in Victoria as a result of reforms outlined by the EPA Inquiry.

These reforms are now being delivered under the leadership of Victoria’s inaugural Chief Environmental Scientist, Dr Andrea Hinwood and her team at EPA Victoria. Andrea’s work to improve our scientific capabilities and collaborate across the Victorian public sector could result in reform on a grand scale if we think laterally. For example, through innovations that build on investments already made in data and analytics assets and capabilities in Victoria by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) to assist with ‘business as usual environmental’ management. Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley agrees.

This opportunity to embrace the era of big data and analytics to achieve better outcomes for the environment will require “stewardship” as well as leadership – we will need environmental leaders, their teams and other stakeholders to adapt to the changes required, reinvent their roles and work collaboratively to lead us into this new era of environmental understanding, management and protection and we can learn a lot from our colleagues in the emergency management sector in terms of ‘how’ to make this vision a reality.

Craig and I have been discussing for some time just how this vision to leverage EMV assets for state-level, real time, environmental information may work in practice. I wrote about this last week in Game-changing environmental monitoring reforms are underway. We certainly agree that translating the technology, skills and know-how that underpin Victoria’s emergency response capability, into a more ‘business as usual’ operation for environmental response is a fantastic opportunity and leverages the significant investments already made.

EMV has been walking the talk in terms of stewardship into the big data era. EMV has been working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT LL) since 2014 on its technology platform Emergency Management Common Operating Picture (EM-COP) which is an open source, cloud-based collaboration and information tool that has radically improved the way Victoria’s emergency management sector makes decisions and delivers information to all stakeholders including community, before, during and after emergencies. 

It is great to see that this platform (and planning tool) has been extended to be used on major events like cycling races on the Great Ocean Road. It makes sense as this platform is about sharing information that decision makers need – weather, road closures, traffic flow etc. There are infinite uses for this type of technology. (EM-COP originates in MIT’s work with command and control centres in the military sector.)

I think that EM-COP is worth knowing about. Craig has explained to me that sharing information such as road networks, traffic flow, movement of people which is known by or owned by multiple agencies, departments or even businesses, has myriad uses and ultimately leads to better decision making and better community outcomes.

To be effective stewards, we in government must continue to reimagine and reinvent our roles. Rethinking ways to break down silos and collaborate to maximise the return on the State’s investments in assets and capabilities and the way we work both within and across government – and in partnership with industry and community. This will result in more productivity from our existing public assets and information as well as fostering a sense of shared responsibility and accountability.

By harnessing the power of big data we are going to be better equipped for proactive responses. To monitor trends and emergent information so that we can predict environmental harm in a more timely manner and prescribe preventative measures, rather than use information to describe and event an implement corrective measures afterwards. In this way, through the power that access to meaningful and timely information on the health of our environment gives us as individuals, we will all be better equipped as stewards of the environment; and to understand what we, as individuals, can do for and with our communities, to protect the environment.

The awareness, ownership and stewardship of all of us as custodians of our environment will become increasingly critical over the next decade so that we can all continue to take action to help reduce the impact of pressures such as population growth and climate change on the environment.

Further reading:

From the Financial Times: Can big data revolutionise policymaking by governments?

From PSFK: Big Data Sets Its Sights on Subway Improvements and Ridesharing Fleets