As we get caught up in the daily excitement of the latest trends, functionalities and changes in social media and digital marketing, it can be easy to overlook the wider, more significant advances being made possible by increased global connectivity and the pervasiveness of online data. Facebook recently released a report on social media and its impact on cultural trends which outlined how the advent of social media has provided more access to information, which, in turn, has lead to greater understanding and progress on many issues.
When viewed in a broader context like this, it becomes easier to see the impact that technology is having on our everyday lives, and this week, Google released a blog post to coincide with Earth Day (April 22nd) which examines how Google sources are being used to advance sustainability initiatives around the world.
The first example Google presents highlights how scientists at the University of Minnesota are using the Google Earth engine – “a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities” – in their efforts to help restore tiger habitats in key regions.
To better focus their conservation efforts, the research team measured habitat loss in the world’s 76 tiger habitats over the past 14 years.
“They found that forest loss was much lower than anticipated across all tiger landscapes (roughly 8 million hectares, or less than 8 percent of the total habitat). Thanks to preservation of habitat in countries like Nepal and India, tiger populations in those countries have already increased 61 and 31 percent, respectively.”
One of the most amazing elements of this research is that it’s largely been conducted using satellite imaging information which is freely available via Google’s Earth Engine (though it does come with some use restrictions). For example, right now you can go to the Earth Engine website, enter in the global location of your choice, and you can watch how that area has evolved over time via landsat satellite imagery.
It’s fascinating to consider the ways in which such data insights can be used, particularly when looking at the example provided, in regards to mapping de-forestation and the impact that can have on native wildlife – and how such impacts can be negated in future.
Another interesting Google research project is Project Sunroof, “a solar calculator that estimates the impact and potential savings of installing solar on the roof of your home”. Through the use of Google Earth imagery, overlaid with annual sun exposure and weather patterns, Project Sunroof aims to “assess viable roof space for solar panel installation, estimate the value of solar and savings based on local energy costs, and connect you with providers of solar panels in your area”.
It’s another great use of our ever-expanding data pool to make more informed decisions about important projects – in this case, energy consumption. Project Sunroof is now available in 42 U.S. states, with data available for more than 43 million rooftops, providing an indicator of the possible savings and benefits that could be gleaned from wider adoption of solar energy – customized to your own house and/or region.
MANAGING AIR POLLUTION
And the third example highlighted by Google is a project being spearheaded by Google Earth Outreach and the Environmental Defense Fund which looks at ways to map methane gas leaks from natural gas pipelines beneath our streets.
As detailed in the video, Google’s able to do this by fitting Google Streetview cars, which are constantly traveling around and mapping our roads, with methane gas analyzers. This means that as the cars drive around capturing image content for Google Maps, they’re also measuring methane concentration every half-second as the car moves. With that data, the research team is then able to map both where and how big methane leaks are.
Methane gas emissions can cause significant environmental impacts, and correcting them can provide a range of benefits. As per Google’s post:
“What we found ranges from an average of one leak per mile (in Boston) to one leak every 200 miles (in Indianapolis), demonstrating the effectiveness of techniques like using plastic piping instead of steel for pipeline construction. We hope utilities can use this data to prioritize the replacement of gas mains and service lines (like New Jersey’s PSE&G announced last fall). We’re also partnering with Aclima to measure many more pollutants with Street View cars in California communities through this year.”
Projects like these underline the expanded possibilities of technology and connectivity, which is providing new ways to live and work smarter through increased tracking of an ever-expanding range of measures. And this is the big thing with data – with 90% of the world’s data only being created within the last few years, we’ve not had the chance to fully explore what all this insight means, there’s simply too much to take in all at once, too much to factor into your decision making to effectively utilize all these new inputs. But we are learning, and one the key things we’re coming to realize is that the core of effective big data use lies in breaking it down into small data – working within the wider dataset to pinpoint the insights and information of relevance to you and your needs, rather than being overwhelmed by everything.
When you consider these insights in the scope of the other data sources available – Twitter data’s being used to map earthquakes and flood damage, Facebook insights are being used to glean better understandings about who we are and what we’re interested in. When you match up all the various data points, the potential for insight is amazing – the opportunities available to all people to track and measure important trends and behaviors relevant to you, your business, your community – the capacity of such analysis is virtually endless. It all comes down to how you target your research, how capable you are in narrowing down the data respective to your needs. Because it’s all there, you just need to know what you’re looking for.
And once you know that, the data opportunities from our hyper-connected world are beyond anything you can imagine.