UNEP at Work                
Opening the Eye

Jacqueline McGlade

Executive Director, European Environment Agency

There has been an explosion of information about the environment around the world. Much of it is distributed openly - but it can still be lost for lack of an easy way to share it with others. How can we best use advances in information and communication technologies to generate an up-to-date view on the state of the environment?

Society is increasingly interested in – and politicians committed to – securing a healthy environment. Economic prosperity and human health are tightly bound up with it. So it is very important to build up the knowledge base to demonstrate this in the face of today’s financial crisis and a rapidly changing world. The challenge is to bring together information from the huge diversity of sources in a simple and yet reliable way.

The European Environment Agency has focused, since its creation, on reaping the benefits of advanced technologies to support its mandate to provide high-quality, timely and reliable environmental information to those who need it most. It is now doing this more than ever, through Eye on Earth, a newly launched global public environmental information service which was showcased in December. It meets the challenge by providing a web service where a broad diversity of information can be brought together in one place, so that it can be used and shared worldwide. It also offers online web applications to allow users to manipulate datasets to create new knowledge on demand – information that people need to better understand the state of their environment and to respond to changes in it.

Eye on Earth is also a networking tool. The EEA has already uploaded large quantities of data, maps, assessments and ways to view them. But that has only been the start. Historical and real-time data from a broad range of other organizations and institutions — including UNEP, the European Commission, the US Environment Protection Agency, the Russian Federation and Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency — have also already been uploaded. In December, many others pledged to bring their data online. Most importantly, UNEP agreed to use it to power UNEP-Live – its web-based platform for organizing and accessing environmental information and knowledge in its historical assessments.

The richer the diversity of data providers, the greater Eye on Earth’s usefulness will be. New understandings can emerge just from combining maps and information from different sources in a simple drag and drop movement. Bringing together data on ship traffic in Europe’s seas with an EEA map of marine protected areas in this way — a straightforward and quick process using Eye on Earth web tools — revealed that a high volume of shipping goes right through them. This raised awareness and demonstrated the need for further investigation of the harm that could be caused.

Perhaps the most revolutionary of all, a set of applications called Watches allows everyone to participate in monitoring their environments and sharing what they find. Noisewatch, Airwatch, and Waterwatch can already be downloaded onto a smartphone or run on a computer — and used to send an observation from wherever a participant may be. People can send in their estimation of the cleanliness of the waters at a local beach – helping others to decide whether to visit it or not — of how clean their air is, or of how noisy a particular neighbourhood becomes in the middle of the rush hour. Citizens who have downloaded the noisemeter from the Eye on Earth website or the EEA onto a smart phone, and sent in the measurements they made, are already helping cities and countries determine how noisy certain environments are and increasing understanding how to improve local living conditions. And later this year Naturewatch will enable them to report whether a plant, bird or animal is a local or invasive species.

Sharing is everything. It’s a prerequisite for expanding and strengthening the global knowledge base so as to support the healthy environment we all depend upon. Eye on Earth will make this happen.

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