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Online networks: An eye on tomorrow

EU agency joins environment information dots to create interactive online network for industry, green community and citizens alike

A recent map showing the vulnerability of European cities to heat waves owing to climate change received over 125,000 visitors in the first 24 hours of hitting the Net. This is just one example of the communicative power of mapping complex issues. The interactive heat wave vulnerability map was published by Eye on Earth, an initiative by the European Environment Agency (EEA). It was crunched from a few maps from a recent report, Urban Adaptation to Climate Change in Europe, and allowed the general public to explore climate change projections up to 2100, showing the increase in number of “tropical nights and hot days” (occasions when the nights provide no relief to killer heat in the daytime) among others. A powerful aspect of the map was that it allowed users to explore projections for their city, while other layers yielded even more relevant information — for example, the amount of open space and population density in each city, factors that can significantly influence the urban heat island effect.

Eye on Earth is an EEA network and community for sharing and discovering environmental information online. Ever since its inception in 1994, the EEA has been gathering huge volumes of environmental data — industrial emissions, water quality, air quality, forest cover, and so on. In 2011, it initiated Eye on Earth, the result of a public-private partnership, bringing together expertise from industry leaders such as Esri and Micrsosoft with public organisations like itself. This new cloud computing- based network of vast volumes of information from organisations around the world promotes the principles of public data access and citizen science.

Eye on Earth users can easily explore maps and map-based apps made by others, contribute content and create their own maps and apps, translating complex scientific data into accessible, interactive and visual online representations. Moreover, the Eye on Earth provides organisations with a secure central location for managing their geospatial environmental content.

This innovative tool gives access to data based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS). It operates with functionalities provided by Esri”s ArcGIS Online for handling a wide range of data for working with maps and geographic information (within an organisation, across a community, and on the Web). Hence, the ArcGIS Online backbone offers the users a complete online GIS for using maps and geographic information to collect, organise, manage, analyse, communicate and distribute data.

Why Eye on Earth?
What makes Eye on Earth stand out from the crowd of information providers?

“Eye on Earth is a collection of various components linked together to connect the dots of environmental information sharing,” says Chris Steenmans, Head of Programme, EEA. “It offers a common platform for official as well as crowdsourced data, strives to add Near Real Time as well as historical data, and scalability from information in your local environment to synoptic information at regional and even global level on different environmental topics. We need to have a common access point to relevant and reliable information to better understand what is happening in our environment, and be able to make informed decisions,” he adds.

To connect the dots, we need to work together across public, private and civil society. The EEA is an agency of the European Union. With a task to provide sound, independent information on the environment, its task of communicating to the public and policymakers means that it often considers innovative and effective ways to get the message across.

Connecting the dots also means linking the vast supply of environmental data with those who can use it. National environmental authorities in the EU have legal obligations to report their environmental data and information to EU bodies such as the EEA. In turn, the EEA uses the information to assess whether the policies are working or not. In tandem with this supply of information, there is a also a continuous demand. For example, public authorities at all levels need to know what is happening in their area and use the information to prepare for emergencies such as floods or to manage accidents such as toxic or oil spills. At least 80% of all the environmental data and information that the EEA uses has a spatial dimension, so most of it can be compared and explored using mapping technology.

Furthermore, environmental information can empower citizens, so they can effectively influence public policy or make decisions that touch the environment. Businesses also use environmental information, for example, to track their environmental footprints, predict future supplies of resources, or as an incentive to develop innovative commercial solutions for environmental problems.

“Scientists, governments, universities and citizen groups can now contribute data and map-based visualizations into this network. The portfolio of content is still small, but growing rapidly, and includes daily ocean temperature forecasts, agricultural areas in Europe, USA land cover, and more. More than anything, this information helps set the baseline for the planet, in a very public, accessible way,” notes MSDN blogger Shoshe in her recent post.

Eye on Earth provides a single point of entry to global environmental data. It offers improved accessibility and a front-end to represent the data to serve all stakeholders (including data providers and information consumers such as decision makers and the general public). By encouraging data-sharing between different sectors, organisations and communities, and intelligent representation of the information, Eye on Earth provides a knowledge base for sustainable development.

Why on Earth is sharing everything?
The motto for Eye on Earth is that ”sharing is everything”, because only by sharing relevant information, we can expand and improve our common understanding about the state of and need for actions to improve the environmental situation. This outlook has been shaped by international agenda issues.

The key international political milestones that frame the sharing of environmental information trace their roots back to the Rio Declaration, a short document produced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), informally known as the Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration comprised 27 principles intended to guide future sustainable development around the world. Besides inking the term sustainable development, Principle 10 is pivotal for Eye on Earth”s objectives, as it draws a close link between access to information and public participation. The Aarhus Convention follows the priorities of Principle 10 in the form of a multilateral environmental agreement through which the opportunities for citizens to access environmental information are increased and transparent, and a reliable regulatory procedure is secured. The agreement was signed by many countries and adopted into a EU legislation.

To strengthen global information sharing, the Eye on Earth Summit was held in December, 2010 in Abu Dhabi. At the end of the four-day summit, a declaration, aiming for greater access to open and shared environmental and societal data for enhanced decision making, was signed. It brought together the global leadership of the environmental information movement, a group dedicated to bringing the benefits of better information to people and decision-makers around the world. Many global and national organisations committed to contributing large volumes of environmental data to the Eye on Earth network (such as the EEA, UNEP and USEPA). A follow-up summit in 2014, again in Abu Dhabi, will take stock of the progress.

The declaration fed into the recent global UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012. There were great steps forward for the global political will to share information on advancing sustainable development. Indeed, the Outcome Document explicitly referenced the Eye on Earth network. Here, world leaders see eye to eye about information sharing being a cornerstone in building the ”The Future We Want”, as the Outcome Document was called. The Rio+20 proceedings will undoubtedly have an influence on the road ahead for Eye on Earth.

Now that the main framework of information sharing has been commonly agreed, the Eye on Earth network continues to grow and put sharing environmental information into action.