IEA Training Manual - Module 4

3.3 Data compilation

Collection of high-quality data is an essential part of the IEA. You can approach initial decisions about what data to collect and how to collect it in a couple of different ways. You may begin by conducting a survey of available data prior to scoping thematic issues for the assessment. Availability of data then becomes a criterion for selecting data and developing indicators around priority issues. Alternatively, you may use a more targeted approach, where priority issues and indicators are identified first, followed by data collection. In this case, if data are not already available, you have four options: (1) exclude the indicator from your list; (2) define a proxy indicator (and indicator that measures your issue only indirectly) for which data is available; (3) include the indicator as a theoretical measurement tool, but point out that data is not available; or if you have time and resources collect primary data, keeping in mind that in this case time series data will not be available.

Once you have decided on the approach you will use for data collection, you will need to further develop a plan that includes elements of developing research methods, defining the type of data needed, and prioritizing which data must be collected. You will also need to specify data sources, and have a clear sense of the quality of the data. The steps involved in obtaining data and building a database go hand in hand with developing an assessment report (Figure 6). 
 

Figure 6: Links between database
and report development in OECD
countries (as quoted in UNEP/DEIA
1996) 

Quality of data and precision of measurement are important considerations during data collection. “Perfect” data are not always necessary or possible, but data quality must be sufficient to satisfy the IEA’s objectives. Imperfect approximations (proxies) might be used in case no direct data can be obtained. Well-known examples of this are the use of CO2 emissions to show long-term climate change risk, or of protected areas to indicate biodiversity. Although different opinions exist as to whether it is better to have poor data rather than no data at all, the general notion is that IEA is to be based on the best available, scientifically sound data from widely recognized sources.

Once the basic data are selected and collected, usually you will need to compile and store them in a dedicated database, which might be also made available on the Internet. A database is an organized collection of data that is used to bring together all information about the state and trends in the environment, and may also include information about environmental policy, references to other data sources and to current research. It is important to ensure the database has continuity, and is kept up to date by linking it to monitoring systems, so that data generated through monitoring are fed into the database. The environmental database can also be used to regularly publish printed documents, such as environmental data compendia and indicator reports, to inform policy-makers and the public, and to provide a snapshot overview of the state of the environment. In many countries, building such a database is, or can be, a collaborative effort of various agencies, such as a central bureau of statistics, environmental and related ministries (e.g., agriculture, water), as well as research organizations and non-governmental organizations.

It may be useful to have the database already agreed and available by the time data collection is starting so that data sets can be added one by one as they are identified. You may also find that the database needs adjusting after you loaded the first data sets, particularly if you want to build in a wider range of functions, like multiple search, display and analytic functions available through the internet.

A database typically includes metadata, which are the background information about a data set itself. They include facts, such as the source of the data, the scale at which they were collected, the year they were collected, the projection if there is one, and any other information that you need to know before you can interpret the meaning of the data and use them in your analysis or report. An example of metadata can be found in the GEO Portal, as demonstrated in Exercise 1. Metadata for indicators is further discussed in Section 4.1 on Methodology Sheets for indicators. Spatial data have additional metadata requirements that are also described in the GEO Data Portal.

Box 5: System for integrated environmental and economic accounting

The System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting (SEEA) is an integrated framework for economic and environmental data. It was developed by the United Nations as a satellite database to the System of National Accounts (SNA) for the purpose of enabling environmental data to be incorporated into economic decision making. It brings together economic and environmental information in a common framework to measure the contribution of the environment to the economy and the impact of the economy on the environment. It provides policy-makers with indicators and descriptive statistics to monitor these interactions, as well as a database for strategic planning and policy analysis to identify more sustainable paths of development. The data contained within the database can also be used to derive national-level indicators (UN Statistics Division 2003 and Hardi, P. 2000). The SEEA system consists of four main categories of accounts:

  • Flow accounts for pollution, energy and materials, providing information at the industry level about the use of energy and materials as inputs to production, and the generation of pollutants and solid waste.
  • Environmental protection and resource management expenditure accounts, identifying expenditures incurred by industry, government and households to protect the environment or to manage natural resources. They take those elements of the existing SNA that are relevant to the good management of the environment and show how the environment-related transactions can be made more explicit.
  • Natural resource asset accounts, recording stocks and changes in stocks of natural resources such as land, fish, forest, water and minerals.
  • Valuation of non-market flows and environmentally-adjusted aggregates, presenting non-market valuation techniques and their applicability in answering specific policy questions. It discusses the calculation of several macroeconomic aggregates, adjusted for depletion and degradation costs, and their advantages and disadvantages. It also considers adjustments concerning the so-called defensive expenditures.

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