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From V1 magazine: How can geospatial technology drive political consensus on environmental issues?

v1 Magazine


Jeff Thurston

There are many ways that geospatial technology can drive political consensus on environmental issues. Flooding, disease, conservation, water quality, noise mapping and many other issues often demand high quality geographic information, spatial analysis and integration. Action, coordination and working together are necessary to meet these challenges.

The role of GIS and other spatial technologies, I think, is to provide the best information possible through capitalising upon their functionality – end-to-end – to enable decision makers to make informed decisions. In fact, I would argue that organisations not using GIS should have higher insurance premiums – they are higher risks because they are spatially disadvantaged.

The results of these technologies should help anyone to understand and make better, more informed decisions. Consequently, technology can be seen as enabling consensus and facilitating action. These tools should be able to provide intelligence which is useful, not confusing. They ought to be able to be used for supporting the development of strategic actions that mitigate risk, reduce uncertainty and protect human life.

I heard an example of this this week at the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) 2008 conference in the UK at Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK. Charlie Pattinson, head of resources and information, UK Environment Agency gave a keynote presentation which included information about the 2007 floods within the country. He cited 17% of all emergency facilities at risk, 350,000 people without water, 512 railway stations impacted and 6,896 businesses impacted. “Data sharing and collaboration are our greatest needs and interoperaility is critically important,” he said. As well, are our memories so short we forget the floods in Germany not long ago?

With these levels of impact it is clear that environmental disasters strike regions, cutting across administrative boundaries and impacting people, businesses and infrastructure. As Pattinson put it, “we need to bring technology to bear on reducing uncertainty.” The unknown (if known) can be valuable information for planning recovery efforts and so on.

Our industry has the needed tools for reducing risk and this is accomplished through improved spatial analysis, modeling and, in the case of flooding, greater use of visualisation. Well designed and spatially supported infrastructure necessitates numerous people collaborating and working together.

It is important to enable people with information about events that involve them. Informed decision making occurs through spatial tools and data that is not only delivered to people, but also explained to them, so that they understand its value and usefulness as well as its limitations.

Matt Ball

In this heated season of political debates and attack ads, it’s hard not to get swept up in the vitriolic back and forth of red and blue perspectives. There’s no other time of year where issues become more polarized, and the environment tends to be a battle topic.

At this point in time, geospatial technology, in all its different forms, drives most environmental policy decisions. The information that can be synthesized through observation, modeling and analysis of geospatial information, provides a valuable tool for informing both sides of any given environmental debate.

Beyond simply the big-picture national policy that shapes a country’s impact on the planet, there are the practical on-the-ground elements of policy that need to be assessed and monitored for oversight. Geospatial tools are ideally suited for long-term observation and analysis both before a policy outcome, and afterward, when the management of impacts becomes the focus. These tools will become increasingly valuable as we realize our ability to modify our practices in order to improve our long-term stability.

Providing Evidence and Analysis

When determining a policy direction, evidence on both sides of an argument need to be presented. The supporting government agencies provide this ongoing service with geospatial technology as a key contributor to insight. As details are amassed, in visual map or image format, and in reports with charts and tables, there’s an effort to see the big picture. Geospatial technology is responsible for bringing together that big picture in a way that’s informed by science and not swayed by ideology.

Regardless of legislative focus, if there’s an environmental impact, it’s likely that spatial analysis was employed. The capability to combine the human, environment and economic perspectives of decisions give this toolset the most power. Making knowledge from information relies on the application of domain expertise to generic data about our world. It’s the combination of data and visualization to inform insight that sets geospatial technology apart from other intelligence gathering tools.

Encouraging Public Participation

At the local level, there are often issues of development and community growth that have an impact on the local environment. Consensus on politically charged issues of growth and local economic development versus environmental impacts, needs an impartial data gathering effort and community interaction.

These ongoing issues of local impacts needs broad input to reach beyond well-organized lobbying groups. Public meetings and hearings regarding issues of local importance can be expensive and time-consuming. The combination of geospatial technology and the Internet provides a very effective means of achieving public participation regarding land use planning. The tools amass viewpoints in a consensus-driven process that can yield outcomes that factor in all sides of any issue related to place.

Energy at the Forefront

Her in the United States, we’ve seen the “drill baby, drill!” mantra, as well as a bipartisan call for investment in renewable energy. Having both renewable energy and new exploration appears to be the emerging moderate stance, and is the likely outcome of the political wrangling. Geospatial technology can help us get to this moderate consensus more quickly, and with an informed understanding of the impacts that each choice will have upon our planet. A thorough assessment of the impact of each energy option will promote policy toward environmentally-friendly regulations that make the most of these opportunities.

The idea of renewable energy as a means for energy independence is taking a strong hold. Energy independence promises to improve the economy and provide greater global security. These benefits on all sides makes this a solid bipartisan idea. Promoting the renewable energy industry will require a great deal of geospatial analysis in order to make the most of these investments with the least amount of impact. And geospatial tools can help assess and monitor new oil plays that have the least impact on the environment.

Speed Not a Factor

While I’ve mentioned quicker consensus building, the speed of legislation shouldn’t be a primary goal of any technology. I’m often reminded of the slow and deliberate nature of national politics. While you can point to the process as inefficient, it’s inefficient by design. When Congress was conceived, the founding fathers aimed for a slow moving organization in order to shield it from the whims of current popular opinion. That goal has been achieved, often in conflict with the fast pace of today’s society.

Geospatial technology is a valuable tool for reasoned and deliberate decision making regarding a myriad of policy decisions. With our increasingly fragile balance on our planet’s systems, geospatial tools will play an increasing role for the stewardship of our planet.

Source Vector1media