Dan JellinekEditorWednesday 28 December 2011

New year, new way to save the world

A global environmental data visualisation project is seeking UK public bodies to help build maps and problem-solving tools in the run-up to Rio+20, a UN sustainable development summit to be held next June on the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The "Eye on Earth" service was launched this month by the European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU body, in partnership with geographic information system developer Esri and Microsoft.

Anyone from scientists to non-governmental organisations, public bodies and individuals can view, manipulate, combine or add data to the online maps on topics such as pollution, social development, economic factors, land use, protected areas and sea traffic routes. Maps and other data can be embedded in emails, blogs, websites and shared through social media. New combinations and annotations can be created shared back through the system either publicly or in closed groups.

The EEA has already uploaded water, air, climate change, biodiversity and land use data; other organisations which have also uploaded data include the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC) and the U.S. Geological Survey.

No UK bodies have yet joined, though public sector bodies and all other relevant organisations are invited to take part.

"If you create a single platform where you have all data on the environment, it is easier to create new types of information that you need to take environmental decisions", European Environment Agency spokesperson Iben Stanhardt told UKAuthority.com. "For some years we have had Eye on earth "watches" in areas like bathing water, but this is new, for people to contribute with your own data."

Development plans include the creation of a data catalogue from mid-2012; creation of more data visualisation functions; and addition of data from new European observation satellites.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director, told an Eye on Earth summit in Abu Dhabi this month that the new system would help decision-makers develop evidence based policies; make environmental information more accessible to all; and help to inspire thought leaders by creating new ways of viewing environmental problems.

Only time will tell how useful a tool it becomes in the UK: how far and fast UK bodies add data to the system in the run-up to Rio could provide an early clue to how high environmental issues have remained on people's priority lists in the age of austerity.