Now big data threatens to ‘save the planet’

Published on the 27/04/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson

Big data

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and now capable of solving the biggest ‘challenge’ of our time…

OK hands up, who believes in ‘greenhouse gas/planet warming/climate change’? Or, for that matter, doesn’t believe in ‘greenhouse gas/planet warming/climate change’? Regardless of where you fall on the Great Divide – and let’s face it, whichever side it is, there is ample evidence to back your position – there is a new saviour in town. Already invested with multiple superpowers, Teralytics has now claimed that big data could potentially address ‘greenhouse gas/planet warming/climate change’ and yes, save the planet.

That’s right, the press release was optimistically titled ‘How Big Data Can Help Save Our Planet’. Can, not could. Help, not actually solve, so there is room for a bit of other activity in the saving, yet.

Set aside fears of a boiling planet drowning in CO2 and the associated message board bunfights which certainly contribute plenty of hot air to the problem, however, and this application of data to solve a difficult problem is noteworthy.

Teralytics, along with German mobile network operator Telefonica NEXT and ‘sustainability solution provider’ South Pole Group, recently conducted a study and say they have found a way to analyse mobile network data to estimate CO2 and NOX emissions in urban areas.

In a statement, the companies said Teralytics examined aggregated and anonymised data from the mobile phones of Telefonica customers. This data was refined into ‘human mobility patterns’ to understand how the different modes of transport are used.

Here comes the mashup: this information was then combined with data on the emissions of the different transport modes to estimate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

The companies said the study, conducted in Nuremberg, estimated the concentration of air pollutants in the city with an accuracy of 77 percent.

Again, whether or not you buy in to ‘global warming’, the study and its findings are a demonstration of unusual ways in which data can be used to understand and contribute to doing something about difficult problems – and what problem could be more difficult than ‘global warming’.

“While our contemporary urban lifestyles result in the generation of harmful greenhouse gases, it also generates large amounts of behavioural data,” said Teralytics CEO Georg Polzer. “Our findings showed that this data can be used to give city planners insights into how human mobility contributes to pollution. This is a vital part to efficiently design and implement clean air and low carbon strategies.”

Some technical details: using a three-level process, the anonymised aggregated data was transformed into movement flows by Teralytics data scientists, identifying over 1.2 million transportation routes during the analysed time period.

A sustainability solution expert at South Pole Group used an atmospheric model to estimate air pollution levels caused by the usage of the different modes of transportation, taking into account meteorological data and information on the respective traffic carriers’ emission levels from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMUB).

Finally, accuracy was examined by comparing the findings with existing data from air pollution measuring stations. The values measured at these stations were found to correlate up to 77 per cent with those from the Teralytics’ calculations.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure, so being able to estimate emissions at what the companies’ involved said was a ‘very low cost’ arguably provides a better foundation on which to start managing the emissions problem. And, if indeed emissions are going to kill us all, perhaps big data will help stave off that inevitability.

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