Forest road from the airHow can data and emerging technologies transform the ways we assess and monitor changes in the natural environment?

New technologies, combined with unprecedented volumes of data, are providing new insights and opportunities that could revolutionise everything from food and farming to disaster management. From identifying water pipe leaks to counting all of the UK’s trees from space using high resolution satellite imagery, the possibilities seem almost endless, and are certainly exciting.

This blog post on the Science for Defra: excellence in the application of evidence conference, gives some highlights from the panel I chaired on data and emerging technology. I was joined by Dr Sue Black from UCL and #techmums, Professor Mark Maslin from Rezatec and UCL, and David Askew from Natural England and Defra’s Earth Observation Centre of Excellence to discuss where technology can be applied to environmental, food and rural policy.

Technological opportunities for the natural environment

We are beginning to see a wealth of new opportunities for technology in the natural environment, from the rapid uptake of earth observation due to recent advances in the field to machine learning-powered image recognition and GPS tracking. These technologies, alongside the sheer volume of raw data they create, including the satellites that provide images of the entire Earth’s surface every day, are being used to observe and understand environmental changes and determine human impact. This ranges from rapid habitat mapping to water quality monitoring.

For example, Rezatec’s Mark Maslin spoke about the power of geospatial analytics in providing landscape intelligence from satellite imagery and machine learning algorithms, to support forestry and agricultural assessment. These technologies can be used to:

  1. Increase productivity by using high resolution imaging to predict crop classifications, determine the most productive areas and forecast performance. This yield data, combined with climate and soil data, can be used to build scenarios to smooth production and support greater sustainability in farming and the natural environment.
  2. Support forestry and tree health by classifying trees from space, identifying stress, disease and storm damage, and producing tree count, volume and height estimates; this data can provide early warnings signals for vegetation and productivity changes.
  3. Answer new kinds of questions altogether, such as detecting water pipe leaks and groundswell, which can be used by water companies to save money, reduce fines and eliminate the need for extra water treatment.

Government is already beginning to harness these technologies, for example Defra’s Earth Observation Centre of Excellence is bringing expertise from across the Defra group to improve access to earth data in both the field and office. They have been deploying technologies in a range of applications, for example using radar (SAR) data to track crop resource changes, and developing new ways of assessing changes in ecological condition.

But how can we ensure that we are capitalising on these technologies to best support efficient and effective ecosystem management?

Tech Skills

The growing need for digital skills and better tech education to support both cultural and social change was an important message from the panel. Based on her experience as the Founder of #techmums, Sue Black explained how digital skills programmes can empower individuals, increase confidence, support innovation across diverse backgrounds, and create a new wave of technology advocates. Supporting digital skills programmes from a young age means that children can ‘get comfortable’ with data and can use it to harness technology to create a diversity of solutions for future generations. When it comes to the civil service, creating a technology-forward culture that encourages adoption and everyday use is vital to harness the potential of emerging technology and data in the coming years.

Asking the right questions and making the right connections

Emerging technologies and data will only be as useful as the questions we ask them. For example, raw data can be complex and has little value in and of itself; it needs to be turned into information and, most importantly, actionable knowledge. The key to addressing emerging environmental policy problems is relevant data that answers the question, and collaboration between academia and industry to ensure that the right questions are driving the interrogation of the data.

There is an opportunity to reimagine how we use data, to ensure that data and new technologies are embedded in policy culture and conversations around the natural environment. I am reminded of the 2016 Royal Society event ‘From satellite to soil: connecting environmental observations to agri-tech innovations’ where Dr Barbara Ryan highlighted the tremendous opportunity created for new public sector applications by opening public sector data, including environmental observations. Access to and standardisation of data are important keys to unlocking the full potential of new technologies and analytics techniques.

Data-driven technologies can provide more accurate answers to our existing policy questions. But if we left it here, we’d be missing a trick; these new insights allow us to ask new kinds of questions, combine data sources across government and elsewhere, address evidence gaps as soon as we see them emerging, and solve challenging policy needs. In fact, technologies like earth observation satellites are becoming an integral part of the evidence base for our natural environment policies, supporting recent decisions to include satellites as part of our critical national infrastructure.

There are still unanswered questions and limitations, such as judging the quality of the evidence presented and synthesising the data into useful answers. And we should be wary of considering new technologies to be a panacea: they aren’t. However, there is a potentially transformational opportunity available if we can harness cutting edge technology, big data, collaboration and tech education, to produce novel and actionable insights for evidence-based policy in the 21st century.

This is one in a short series of blog posts summarising the recent ‘Science for Defra: excellence in the application of evidence’ conference, held at the Royal Society on 29 and 30 March. For more conference outputs see the conference event page and keep your eye on In Verba for summary blogs of the individual sessions by our Fellows.