Keeping an eye on the environment
On June 20th 2012, in the presence of Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt, sustainability legend Gro Harlem Brundtland, IPCC Chair Rajendra K. Pachauri, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard and 150 VIP guests at Rio+20, Eye on Earth has been chosen for the prestigious SUSTAINIA 100 list of solutions. For more information, you can visit: http://www.esri.com/news/releases/12-2qtr/eye-on-earth-honoured-as-a-top-sustainable-solution-at-rio20.html
The European Environment Agency is using leading-edge technologies to enable citizens to find out about the state of the environment.
Beaches dirty and the sea filled with sewage. And historic city streets choked with traffic that belches out lung-burning pollution. Why, you ask, did nobody warn me about this before we left home?
The rise of the Internet has already helped travellers sort out some travel facts from fiction. Rude waiters and overpriced tourist traps are routinely exposed on a string of websites that help people choose hotels and package trips. Now technology is helping to make information about pollution available too.
“Eye on Earth gives European citizens instant access to environmental data collected about the air they breathe and the water they (sometimes) swim in.”
A new partnership between Microsoft and the European Environment Agency (EEA) aims to prevent nasty surprises for travellers when it comes to air and water quality. It could benefit those who stay at home, too. By making information about the state of the natural environment easy to find, the project aims to boost awareness and offer early warnings of when pollution occurs.
Called Eye on Earth, the project has established a web-based portal that gives European citizens instant access to environmental data collected about the air they breathe and the water they (sometimes) swim in. It is based around an interactive high-definition map, and at the touch of a button web users can choose a location and review up-to-date official readouts on air pollutants, including ground-level ozone and nitrogen dioxide, as well as the listed quality of bathing water beaches and waterways.
The project was originally launched in 2008, as Water Watch, to allow Europeans to compare the cleanliness of bathing water. At the start of the five-year partnership, Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, said: “As environmental problems become more evident and affect the lives of ordinary individuals, it is vitally important that we can access relevant and timely information on the impact of environmental change.”
She added: “With Eye on Earth, the EEA and Microsoft plan to bring complex strands of information together into a simple-to-use and easy-to-understand application.”
Updated to include the air quality information, Eye on Earth was relaunched in November, since when some 350,000 people have made use of it.
The site exploits cloud computing technology, which allows the EEA to make the service available without major capital investment in hosting servers. Ludo De Bock, Microsoft’s senior director for the European and NATO countries, calls Eye on Earth a “Global Observatory for Environmental Change” that aims to give the continent’s 600 million citizens access to environmental data. He says the project has two ambitions: “We want to create awareness of the importance of the environment, and we want to show people what they can do.”
“We can’t any more rely on the kind of old server world that we had. We have to move on,” says McGlade. “So I think a little bit of courage and bravery is what we’ve been given by working with Microsoft, and I think it’s placed the European Environment Agency really at the cutting edge of what it means to be a public service, marking out where the world is going in a time of climate change.”
The project offered two big challenges, De Bock says. The first was to agree a user format so that “everybody, you don’t have to be an environment expert, understands what they see and how they can collaborate to provide personal feedback”. The second was to capture enough monitoring stations, transmitting real-time data to the EEA, to update the information available on Eye on Earth.
The portal draws on data gathered from some 22,000 water quality monitoring sites across the continent, which are updated during the bathing season from the start of June to the end of September. In addition, at the end of May the EEA, together with the European Commission, publishes the official water quality ranking for beaches and waterways. It also features historical records that allow users to track how the quality has changed over the last two decades.
Information on air pollution comes from more than 6,000 monitoring stations, which update the site almost every hour. Air quality models estimate pollutant levels at points in between, to offer more widespread coverage.
The Eye on Earth portal is written in Silverlight and runs on Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. It combines environmental data with geospatial data through Microsoft’s Bing Maps.
“We want to be a reliable source of information but we really need to be part of the vanguard that shows how we can get that information into people’s hands. Bing, I think, is the platform that will genuinely help us reach millions of people in a way which is simple. It’s an open system, it’s non-proprietary in many ways, because we can put many sources of data in there,” says McGlade, adding: “Azure really helps us to think more firmly about how public institutions should look after and safeguard the terabytes of data that we now have in a sense in our stewardship.”
A key feature of the portal is the way people who use the site can enter their own observations and feedback, to offer a view from the ground, or water. Air quality can be judged from pre-selected descriptions such as “clean” and “irritating” and the user-generated ratings are displayed on the site alongside the official data. More than 60,000 such updates have already been entered. Users can use SMS (texting) to query Eye on Earth to get the air or water quality either at their current location or where are thinking of visiting.
The feedback is taken from users on trust at present, and though De Bock admitted this did give malicious users the chance to enter false or misleading information, he says there have been no problems so far. An unexpected cluster of reports of a problem would trigger an investigation, which could offer early warning of a pollution incident, he adds.
Both society and individuals could benefit. “On a personal level, think about someone with asthma. They could use this to look at air quality and decide if they were going to a certain place whether they needed to take their medicine with them, or if it was safe for them to go jogging,” said De Bock.
“The portal draws on data gathered from some 22,000 water quality monitoring sites across the continent.”
De Bock says the project could grow to include other countries and other environmental data. In principle, he says, any information collected on issues such as soil quality, biodiversity and noise levels could be introduced.
“That information is available and is already used for research and by people in universities, but it is not made for consumers. It is available in different data formats that are not easily understood by the non-expert,” he says. “From a technical perspective everything is possible. This could be the next environmental Twitter or Facebook.”
Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. More information Web: www.eyeonearth.eu Contact: If you wish to become a data provider, email eoe.data[at]eea.europa.eu
Author: David Adam
Liked this article? Browse more Futures articles