Availability of quality data is essential to solving environmental problems and monitoring impacts. Furthermore, ecosystem service analysis, which is used more and more to address environmental management challenges, is often data intensive, requiring information from multiple sectors, at different scales, and with spatial and temporal qualities. Unfortunately, collecting primary data is often costly and labor intensive, resulting in a shortage of such information. If secondary data exists, it can be spread across multiple ministries and industries which maintain different sharing and storing protocols which further limits access to information. Moreover, managing, analyzing and visualizing data can require special expertise and proprietary software. This limits the capacity of institutions to value ecosystem services and how their supply or quality might change under different development and planning decisions or climate change scenarios.
At the same time, cell phones, internet and social platforms are expanding rapidly across Latin America and the Caribbean. Over half of the region’s population is currently online and mobile internet is growing at a fast speed. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are some of the world’s largest Facebook markets and social media users in the Region are highly engaged. New technology generates large amounts of data which are often publicly available, providing a rich new resource for evaluating endless environmental and other questions. Meanwhile, opensource tools and technological innovation are developing new ways to share and manipulate this data for the public and private sectors and civil society.
These advancements present a huge opportunity for mitigating the data availability problem in biodiversity and ecosystem service projects. For example, open source software such as the Natural Capital Project’s Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) can be used to map and value the services that nature provides to people in order to inform decision making. Hackathons (intense collaborations on software projects) are working to improve disaster risk management and web-based tools can be freely used to assess global flood vulnerability and deforestation. In urban areas, networked ‘smart cities’ use mobile phone data, remote sensors and other technology to improve transportation planning and emergency response.
One particularly innovative approach to using big data can be found in the tourism sector, which is closely linked to natural capital (unique species and ecosystems attract tourists such as scuba divers and birders; while ecosystem services such as coastal protection and water provisioning support tourism infrastructure and services). Researchers from the Natural Capital Project are using this data to better understand the relationship between different environmental attributes and where and how tourists spend their time and money. This information can highlight how environmental degradation (or conservation) impacts the economic benefits generated by the tourism sector.
This approach uses photos stamped with a geographical location to collect information about where tourists go and their place of origin. Analysis on this large new data source has shown that freely available Flickr data can serve as a reliable proxy for empirical tourist visitation rates, which are used in various statistical analyses. This approach has already been used to demonstrate the recreational value of water quality changes in lakes – cleaner water attracts higher numbers of visitors and people are willing to travel more for cleaner water.
Image: Locations of the approximately 197 M geotagged photographs uploaded to flickr from 2005–2012. From: Spencer A. Wood et al., “Using Social Media to Quantify Nature-Based Tourism and Recreation,” 2013
At the BIO program, researchers from the Natural Capital Project are using geo-tagged photos to understand tourism activity on Andros Island in The Bahamas as part of an ecosystem service analysis to inform a master plan for the island. Tourism is a major component of the island’s current and future growth. Understanding how development decisions will impact the island’s natural resources and subsequently the island’s tourism product is essential information for making sustainable choices for the island’s economic development.
Given the exponential rate of change in technology, harnessing the power of big data will be key to improving our ability to value nature and incorporate those values into decision-making and planning.
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