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European Environment Agency Embraces Sensors and Systems

The European Environment Agency is responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating environmental policy for 32 member countries in the European Union. As part of their mandate, they look closely at adapting environmental governance due to our rapidly changing world. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of this agency, at the recent Esri International User Conference where she gave a keynote about her agency’s lead role on sensors and systems, and about the growing need to mitigate impacts on the environment.

V1: Is the open data movement and urge for transparency that is sweeping across government making its way into the environmental monitoring community?

McGlade: In the last few years, we’ve really been pushing countries to come online voluntarily with information that isn’t part of their regulatory requirement, but that citizens really want to know about. Air quality is a classic one, where countries don’t have to report all the time on air quality, but they are doing it, and for cities in particular.

This idea that you do yourself less harm by reporting everything to the citizen is gradually building up. In other words, it’s better to be open and transparent about what’s really happening, than to hide it away or to create information aggregates and to smooth out all the anomalies.

V1: Often we hear that one of the barriers to data sharing is because those holding the data don’t want to expose the poor quality of their data. Is there still a fear about how the data is utilised?

McGlade: People are very aware of environmental conditions. There are things that no matter how well you try, you cannot overcome. Air quality is one of those. The Netherlands, for example, is often struggling to meet the air quality requirements, but it’s not for want of trying, it’s because of the wind-borne natural circulation of air across the troposphere that brings pollutants from the East (from Central Asia and from China). It just so happens that it gets dumped in that part of Europe.

You can have the cleanest and best policies on the ground, but if you get delivered a whole extra load of pollutants that is transported a long way from somewhere else, then it’s very difficult to cope with. You try to understand what the burden is, and what you have to assimilate, and you have to react to it. It’s not that it’s bad data, it’s telling you important things about the exposure issues related to your population. You might have to have other actions, such as urging people to stay indoors.

I think the preemptive and reactive response is much more relevant today than in the past. It is important to see all that the data shows, because otherwise you’re not credible.

V1: You spoke a good deal about mankind’s role in global change in your keynote address. Your agency’s role is very much in the impact detection business, and it continually strikes me how little understanding we have about our long-term impacts.

McGlade: I think that another role that we play, and it’s linked very much to our mission, centers around sustainability. We develop and deliver information that enables government and citizens to have a strategy that is sustainable. We are strong advocates of the precautionary principle, and have often invoked this principle, maybe sometimes against the wishes of industry and governments, but unfortunately in most cases we have proven to be right over time. The power of the precautionary principle is that it makes people think.

There is a huge responsibility for an agency like the one that I run, where you have people trusting you, and they trust us because we are very transparent, because we challenge countries, and we try as best as we can to validate data. We do it on the basis of no surprises. If we find fault with data and reports, we always go back and ask for these to be rechecked and verified.

The public looks to us, as does the legislature, to really put together the evidence that will help make good policy in the future and also to tell them which policies are not working. Some policies become almost irrelevant, and become superseded by other policy that is happening such as with transport, agriculture and climate change.

We have a lookout role looking at global trends, we do a lot of scenario and futures work, and we do this preemptive work to have precaution. We tend to see that there are absolute gaps in our knowledge, and we have flagged those, but look at the research community to fill those gaps.

V1: The movement into sensor development seems to be a bold move that requires investment. Is cost justification a part of the outreach effort?

McGlade: I would say that our Information Technology is very much at the cutting edge, and we try to encourage countries to really come with us, because we are seeking solutions that reduce costs. We have moved to the use and development of cheap sensors and to the cloud to reduce the operating cost of service. We are always looking out for the countries to make sure they can do the job in a cost-effective way.

When I first wanted to push sensors, I found as you might expect that the American continent had the bulk of sensor developers. We really didn’t have so many in the European setting. What I can see now is a very interesting phenomenon where there are fantastic sensor development, but they haven’t connected to the user. There are really smart approaches, with nanoscale sizes, but they haven’t found who is going to use them in many cases. On the other hand, there are many people that haven’t even thought of using a sensor, because they didn’t think it was possible.

While we can find one or two sensors that are fit for purpose, we need to think ourselves about shaping that whole industry. We have started doing that with contracts out for sensor development to ruggedize sensors, to prove the telecommunications package, and battery life, etc. I used to work a lot in the marine sector on instruments, and I think we can learn a lot from that technology development in many areas.

Sensors are the future. It is a way in which citizens, if properly priced, can participate. I’m after adding to what countries can do by having citizens bring in data and see it being used. It’s not just crowsdourcing, but professionalizing ways in which citizens can participate.

V1: Is the volume of data, and making sense of the data, a concern? How do we unlock all the data that has been collected, and that continually expands?

McGlade: Our next big step is to work with partners and to work on data tagging. If you have your own data, you will be ensured about your own intellectual property being attached to that, like a fingerprint. You’ll also be able to search for your data and see who is using it.

As a corollary, having approached some national institutes of science, I’m working toward creating the idea of a new career structure in academic research around people who do collect data. They don’t necessarily write scientific papers, but they form an incredibly important role by gathering information about the environment, whether it is monitoring data or one-off observations or collections.

I think we can unleash an enormous amount of knowledge that is currently sitting in shoe boxes and computers where there isn’t a home for it. I’m hoping to create a sort of marketplace for environmental information for sharing data about a place, and where you get credit if you collected the data.

V1: You’ve recently accepted an appointment to the Board of Directors of the Open Geospatial Consortium, and your discussion of the assurance of intellectual property ties into their work as well as their work on sensor standards. How important are standards for your vision?

McGlade: Sensor Web Enablement (SWE) is very important, and we need to always ensure that what we do with geospatial technology is SWE consistent. We need to bring data from sensors and automatically putit together with mapping, which requires these standards. What we want to see are very simple standards, and some of the OGC standards are very complicated. If I had one plea to that community it would be to simplify standards, otherwise people won’t adopt and deploy them and put them into practice.

You don’t want it to be so generic that it would lose relevance, but maybe we should be very careful about becoming too thematic and dogmatic. I do think standards are very important, to provide data exchange and interoperability, but I think we need to use them very carefully, otherwise we come obsessed about the standard as opposed to why we collect the data in the first place.

V1: On the mitigation side, is your organization involved much in issues of resilience, and bringing environments back to good health?

McGlade: We’re very involved. We’re writing the methods book for the United Nations on experimental accounts for ecosystems and ecosystem services that has just been approved in New York in June. The reason this is very important is because the system of national accounts—where we get our figures for GDP, employment figures, and so on—will now have a system on environmental accounting that will be linked. We are a very strong part of validating those figures. Eurostat partners and other statistical bodies have asked our agency to write the second part for experimental accounts for ecosystem services.

Through a process of linking to the system of national accounts, you can not so much put a value on ecosystem services, but you can put a cost of restoration. If you have a cost of restoration, it helps you identify from a dynamical sense, when and how interventions can cause the loss of resilience. So, there’s a combination of how the ecosystem functions (the services), and at what point through the cost benefit and the cost of restoration can you let it go to before you cross the threshold. That is the identification that we will be looking for as part of the accounting systems.

It’s a very fast-track piece of work that has to be completed by the Spring of 2013. We have a very strong sense that it will be used by a lot of countries, and I’m very hopeful that this will give us another layer of understanding on how the world works.

It is spatially explicit, and it is linked to the system of accounts that are spatial and to social and demographic mapping. It becomes a new accounting tool for both ecosystems and the environment.

V1: We’re very interested in the interface with the built world and the natural world, and have focused a good deal of our coverage on cities as it is a place where we can be most efficient. Is there a strong urban focus at your agency?

McGlade: This idea of resilience is very important for urban settings, because there is clearly critical mass when it comes to being effective around resources, facilities and services. There is also a sense in which the fragmentation patterns are equally important, such as urban spread and sprawl, which has its own spatial pattern. We’re looking at how that fragmentation process, which causes a loss of resilience, can be averted by anticipating how urban sprawl could occur and the implications. We are working on understanding how spreading sprawl in certain areas effects particular ecosystems, and putting together the right policies and decision making to avoid that.

It also leads to the idea that within the urban setting there is a certain resilience, such as how many people you pack into a certain area, and how much green space you provide, etc. I think that is an as yet untapped area, and it is why I believe that the three-dimensional tools are fascinating. They will enable architects to really play around with concepts such as maximum density, and also what that means for the resilience of facilities, family structures, and so on. I can see that we need to do a lot more on both urban patterns of living, but also how we intersperse and create different living environments within the urban setting.

V1: I live in a redevelopment community, and I’m constantly amazed at the capacity for natural resilience if we return a balance. For instance, daylighting a stream in my community has returned an abundance of nature to an area that was once covered by concrete.

McGlade: We started a wonderful project to return bees to the top of buildings, and it’s a social project that started with a young lad that wanted to help homeless and disenfranchised people. He worked with a hotel out by the Copenhagen airport to put the first hives on their roof. He trains disenfranchised people to look after bees. We made a small honey factory, and the honey from the beehives is harvested and sold. We harvested 60 litres of honey in one day.

What’s fascinating when you make cities think about bees is that they create these rivers of nectar. The idea that parks when connected will be able to run from one park to another. It’s really triggering what parks can do to support different pollinators. As you know, in many parts of the world there is an artificial pollination where bees are delivered and then moved on. What happens if you have a healthy bee population in a city is that the productivity in the gardens goes up by as much as 30 percent, because there is far more pollination success. People’s gardens become much more productive if there is a healthy bee an pollinator production.

It makes the whole city become more resilient, because you have this reinforcement of natural process going on. It doesn’t matter that it’s urban. The other thing that people don’t understand about bees is that they have a way to detect and reject bees that are contaminated or polluted, but they do allow bees that are slightly contaminated. During the regurgitation process the honey gets processed and stored in additional bees, so that the honey that comes out is absolutely pure.

The one thing they can’t deal well with though is pesticide. That’s why the honey in the countryside is often so much more contaminated than in the cities, because pesticides aren’t used in city parks. The honey from bees in cities is really clean.

We had a great breakthrough at a restaurant in Copenhagen called Noma that is supposed to be the world’s best restaurant. The chef there has led this whole movement on foraging for food. They are going to sell our honey, because they see it as the purest and best honey that they can have. What’s really nice is that there are five or six socially disadvantaged people who have a proper living harvesting our honey. It’s a great story, and I think it links to how cities can take on another capacity.

V1: It’s really interesting how our cities are now looking more closely at livability, walkability and quality of life issues in the planning process.

McGlade: How we can work together on projects like the bees has a real transformative place in our lives. Especially for people that live on their own, which they often do in cities. Most of the successes that we’ve seen, particularly in Scandinavia, is for places where people can come together to grow things in communal gardens. Even in very northern temperatures where it’s very difficult to grow things, having greenhouses annexed to buildings where people can commonly grow tomatoes, has a completely positive effect for people that live in those flats. Cities can be pretty good places to live, not always, but they can be.

It’s primarily about how people are brought together, and creating the infrastructure to bring people together are more the norm in some countries. In Finland for instance, they create these common areas. I think it’s learning by experience, which is why our agency puts a lot of store in the success stories, because you can look at those and understand how easy it is to do these things yourself. It’s about telling a story so that others can have inspiration, and hope that it gets replicated.

V1: With all these little positive steps, it’s also important to think with the seriousness that your talk started out with in terms of the impacts of climate change. You related that we’re in a dire situation, but that we can turn it around.

McGlade: We are in deep trouble, and we have to pay attention, even though we’re in the midst of a financial crisis. You only have to go to Greenland once to understand, and I go there a lot because we have an accord to support the government. Every time I go, our guide that goes out onto the ice every day, relates the speed in which the ice is melting. We have to adapt, we can still mitigate and we must mitigate. We’re going to have to learn a lot about how to live on a planet where things are very different.

Copenhagen for example was pretty much wiped out just a few weeks ago because more rain than ever fell in a very short span of time. The agency was flooded, and the whole city was flooded. We were within just a couple inches from the high voltage lines being flooded, which would have meant a very big explosion. These things are happening all the time now all over Europe and the world.

In the end, it is about people being helped to know what they rely on. If I were a business, I would want to know where my closest electric substation is, and if it is protected from flooding. In response, I’d hope to know that if I located my business in a safe area, and I took care of my infrastructure that my insurance premium would be different. I think that’s where the business sector needs to be more upbeat, and paying attention, to manage these impacts proactively. That’s why my agency is reaching out more to the small business community, letting them know that it is their duty and care to be informed. We will help you, we’ll make the data publicly available and transparent, we’ll tell you about the infrastructure, but then you need to act on it in a way that you’ve thought about what climate change will mean.

Written by Matt Ball Monday, 15 August 2011