Data is as Important as Human Rights

We are in an age where the data is prevalent, accessible, and comprehensible. And I think comprehensibility is the key — people must be able to understand what the data is. From being ‘useful’, data has now become ‘essential’. This is immensely beneficial for humankind. Data is the tool that will allow the world to actually de-carbonize the economy and stay within acceptable parameters. It is an enabler for something which is incredibly urgent. The timeframe for action cannot be met by the political world without the sort of technology that big geospatial data and layers of all those levels and penetrations of knowledge give you. As far as issues concerning privacy or abuse of power, those hold true with all technologies and have to be addressed.

Infrastructure key to development; data key to infrastructure

As we enter the digital age, the future will be all about data. One of the areas where we can use data effectively is building future cities.

Increasing population growth would bring with it challenges such as urbanization, transport issues, demand for water and power, among others. The infrastructure sector can’t get the world to global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius on its own. But by doing nothing, it will only ensure that no one else does either. With the equivalent of six new Europes to be created by 2030, the infrastructure sector is looking at a massive opportunity. However, we must remember that infrastructure impacts all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which means that the infrastructure sector is fundamental to addressing inequality and poverty in the world.

Layering Big Data with geospatial will allow planning decisions to be shared with the communities. I think you are seeing that aspect of geospatial in many places: Singapore being one; China is looking at it a great deal; work is being done in India and the UK that allows participation in a way that is comprehensible by the general public. In today’s world, the choices that we have to make are quite difficult — between biodiversity, environment, land use, urban redevelopment and employment. Geospatial data allows you to scale up things, make intelligent choices and run scenarios about what is the most efficient, socially acceptable and socially inclusive way of making those decisions.

Value of data in building a sustainable world

I first realized the value of data — geospatial data in particular — in building a sustainable world when I was the Chief Executive at WS Atkins, the UK’s largest engineering consultant. That was about 20 years ago. I was good at turning businesses around that were in trouble. WS Atkins was in trouble and it was more about making the business viable. I am proud that I managed to turn it around. But I am prouder about how I achieved that. During a conversation with my daughter one day, I realized that sustainability was a bigger issue and I started to look at climate science. As the Chief Executive, you get paid to think about what you think is good for the company. If you do not understand a little bit about science, politics and how media reports it, a little bit about business models that you are looking at related to de-carbonization and a little about economics and human behavior, you end up ignoring the big problem.

It probably took us five years to start the journey. As a global engineering design firm, we decided that reducing carbon in our designs was not just an option, but an inherent part of the job. Over the years, we trained our staff to have meaningful conversations on carbon efficiency with clients. I am proud that Atkins is continuing on that path. Today, carbon-critical designs are part of Atkins’ DNA. The geospatial group at Atkins was an integral part of driving this change. Recently, Dr Anne Kemp, who has led the company’s BIM strategy and development, received the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list for the role she has played in helping the UK understand how the construction and infrastructure sectors can adopt a digital approach to better design, build, operate and integrate the built environment.

I am not sure whether my daughter got sustainability before I did, but now the whole family has it, and it feels good.

I also realized that data is a useful tool not just for one particular thing or sector, but for a whole range of issues. What I did not understand back then and have figured out recently is that acceleration of merging different datasets would be so fluid and so comprehensible. That changes the game from really useful to something which is wicked cool today. We always knew we had lots of data, but had no knowledge about what to do with it or how to comprehend. Today, the focus has moved from data collection to knowledge collection; and this is a very recent acceleration that we have seen in the geospatial sector too. We will soon be witnessing a highly disruptive world, particularly in the developing parts, where we will have many choices on what to achieve and the way in which it can be achieved. I am surprised about how quickly the technology is advancing. The challenge for the future is to exploit this technology for the good of humankind, but at the same time protect humanity from evils like terrorism. However, the latter is definitely not a reason to move away from this technology, it is a reason to embrace it but adopt it appropriately. That is the opportunity and challenge.

Climate Change: There is no excuse not to try

Climate Change has a scientific history of 250 years when people first started to write about it. The acceleration of knowledge around the subject has been extraordinary, but not because Climate Change has been realized as an issue, but simply because of the computing power that is available now. What is clear is that we knew 20 years ago about this issue. We knew it would be unacceptable to the global economy, unacceptable to humankind, unacceptable if you cared about biodiversity. Supporting the biodiversity and protecting the planet is fundamental to our survival. It is quite clear that we are really running out of time. It is not business as usual. It is an emergency and it is disturbing that we did not recognize it when politicians signed the Paris deal. They signed up to a target. We do have many civilized countries in the world understanding that Climate Change is a common responsibility across the globe. And the time for action was yesterday. It is hard to see that we are not going to make it. But that is not an excuse to not try.

Data disparity: Quality and access

Inequality issues that the world has are pretty pervasive. We may have fewer poor people as defined by the UN, but they are still far too many. And data poverty is an issue for many communities. Even in the UK, if you are a school-going child who does not have Internet access, you will not be able to do your homework. It is a simple example of being disadvantaged, as compared to someone living in the city with 4G and 5G. In the developing world, people do not have access on how transportation works or how weather is going to be. In some parts of the world, accurate weather reports is a basic thing around which we plan our weekends. However, for farmers who are planning crops, knowing how the weather would be, is very important. And giving them access to data is akin to ensuring human rights. Without access to knowledge, the developing world will continue to be in developing stage. While many countries do not have basic data, in some places, it is the government which hoards all the data. The data should actually be with people. Then it becomes an enabler of choice. The developing world is going to leap-frog into to a place where developed countries like the UK and US are currently if they have proper access to data.

As professionals, we have a duty

You are in an industry that has the ability to change all aspects of human condition on a local, regional and global basis. You have got enabling tools that would allow lots of other industries to move. Professionals should be giving clients stuff that the client did not think about. You have opinions, you have views and judgments, that is the difference between someone who is a not professional and a professional. And you are a professional and you are entitled and actually you are there to give views and values. So, it’s down to you.

Author Bio

Keith Clarke is a veteran of the international construction industry. He was the Executive Vice-President of Skanska, CEO of Trafalgar House Construction, Kvaerner Construction and WS Atkins. Clarke is credited with reshaping Atkins to respond to opportunities created by the low carbon economy, and making carbon-critical designs a part of the company’s DNA. An ardent advocate for sustainable development and de-carbonization of the society, he is currently the Chairman of the Forum for the Future, a non-profit working on complex sustainability challenges, and the Chair of Active Building Centre, Swansea University.