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Case Study – Empowering Climate Action Through Digital Visualisation With NZ’s Ministry for the Environment

The world is facing unprecedented challenges in tackling climate change, and a major contributing factor to this is a lack of widespread access to accurate data. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on data in the cloud, it has become more important than ever for everyone to have access to reliable and secure environmental data. But that’s not currently the case.

A fragmented environmental monitoring system with gaps in environmental data and knowledge is undermining our collective stewardship of Aotearoa’s environment. NZ’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, said in the 2019 report “Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting System” that “huge gaps in environmental data and knowledge bedevil our understanding of the environment, while we know the urgency to act has never been greater.”

Microsoft’s own Journey to Net Zero research interviewed around 800 New Zealand businesses and found that the lack of accurate measurement of emissions and impacts was the key barrier to our collective decarbonisation efforts.

Taking action

In one example on how the tech industry is contributing, Microsoft, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), mana whenua, Aware Group, the Open Data Institute, and three local councils (Wellington City Council, Porirua City Council, and Greater Wellington Regional Council) joined forces to create a proof-of-concept digital visualisation of Te Awarua-o-Porirua (Porirua Harbour catchment) and the Keneperu stream’s historic transformations. The aim was to showcase how technology can transform how New Zealanders view environmental change, what it means for them, and how to respond.

New Zealand is actively feeling the effects of climate change. Whether it’s the recent floods in Tairawhiti that eroded an urupa or crops dying across the country due to rising temperatures, it’s not a far off issue that we don’t need to deal with. It is one that has reached the shores of Aotearoa, and one that we, the tech community, need to be addressing.

The technologies of the new digital age provide us an opportunity to make the world better. Cloud technologies, in particular, have the potential to revolutionise how we use, access, and share data. By leveraging the power of the cloud, we can help New Zealanders understand the impact that their actions have on the environment, and subsequently empower individuals and communities to act.

The user-friendly proof-of-concept combined historical records and oral histories from Ngāti Toa with Microsoft machine learning tools to explore how human activities have affected the Kenepuru stream over time – as well as predicting what they could look like in the future.

Most New Zealanders understand the importance of taking environmental action, but it’s often hard to truly convey just how pressing and urgent this issue has become – and how close to home the impacts may be. To help Kiwis make informed decisions concerning infrastructure development and resource management, an improved tool or platform needs to be created that can provide multiple sources of knowledge quickly – empowering individuals to make informed decisions for the good of our environment.

Through the proof-of-concept visualisation model, we were able to demonstrate:

  • How data can be used, in a specific physical location, to address the interconnected actual and potential impacts of climate change in regards to the way we manage resources and infrastructure.
  • How open, accessible, and easily integrated data could enable timely, better decisions for both people and our environment.
  • What is technologically and socially possible that could help build a resilient and holistic system.
  • Transformative ways to address the fragmented nature of our current system – focusing on the problem of siloed datasets and access.

Collaboration and combination

As Natasha Lewis, Deputy Secretary, Strategy and Stewardship at MfE explains: “We wanted to create a digital visualisation and explore how combining the knowledge of mana whenua and data from a range of existing sources could be shared to enable holistic decision-making about the environment, what we take from it, and how we give back and protect it.”

The aspirations for the project were based on Microsoft’s Planetary Computer concept – a global portfolio of applications connecting trillions of data points, “designed to use Artificial Intelligence to synthesise environmental data into practical information regarding the Earth’s current ecosystems.”

Inspired by the planetary computer, this collaborative proof-of-concept is an example of how data can be made visual in order to better educate and inform an audience, and how collaboration between key stakeholders is one of the best tools we have to fight climate change.

When we say key stakeholders, however, that truly has to mean everyone who has value to provide in the conversation around the climate crisis and its impacts. In the past, mana whenua has often been overlooked by data scientists, even though they often have more insight into how we interact with and impact our environment than most. As pointed out by Ngāti Toa rangatira, Robert McClean:

“The voice of mana whenua needs to clearly shine under any light, and the history and experience of Ngāti Toa must be given prominence. This requires more information than existing online sources, as today’s mapping systems were developed and dominated by colonial government survey regimes.”

By joining forces, organisations can far exceed what they are capable of individually.  We were so honoured to be included in this forward-thinking project, and hope that this proof-of-concept is able to grow into something much bigger in the future. As Bianca Ellery, our Chief Operations Officer, said:

“Aware Group is very proud to be engaged as the vendor of choice for such a critical issue facing every single one of us. The proof of concept we created is an innovative solution which connects a diverse range of interest groups and supports mana whenua partnerships and perspectives to provide better environmental outcomes. Our aim is to provide inspiration for what can be achieved with a shared vision of a data ecosystem for all New Zealanders.”

Collaborative efforts like the one producing this visual demonstrator are showing us just how far we can go when data is opened and shared. We hope this example will inspire other businesses to join in on moving towards open access for impactful research that benefits all members of society. We have an opportunity to create a living picture of our world’s health, and the potential benefits this has for society make it imperative that similar projects continue in order to achieve greater outcomes together than what any single group could do alone.

With an unwavering commitment to sustainability and expertise in emerging technologies, Aware Group is proud to have contributed towards the battle against climate change by collaborating with many fantastic organizations and individuals. We look forward to continue to work on projects both similar and different to this in order to make our world a better place.

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