The United Nations Environment Program is responsible for assisting countries in the collection of environmental data for more informed development, improving their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. Jacqueline McGlade, formerly the executive director of the European Environment Agency for ten years, recently joined this group as Chief Scientist, bringing her passion for sensors and information systems. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with McGlade about her background, about harnessing today’s technology to understand the environment around us, and about the importance of geospatial technology to derive understanding from big data.
S&S: What inspired you to go into science and, in particular, into marine biology and environmental informatics?
McGlade: I was brought up living by the sea and it was just one of those crazy magnetic effects. I felt that I knew more about the sea, by the time I was ten years old, than about anything else. I went sailing, I was in the water every day and, if I had a choice it would probably be my medium of choice rather than being on land. What was fascinating in terms of science was that it was clear that the natural world represented the whole mixture. Although I was studying physics, chemistry, and biology, I saw that they all came together in ecosystems. I really never had any doubts that I wanted to be a marine ecologist, right from the very beginning. Then, more and more, as I got interested in what was happening in the world, even when I was quite young—and particularly because I was sailing a lot and doing lots of analytical work and looking at the weather and race tactics and so on—I began to understand the importance of forecasting, of having information so that you could really do things which may be quite critical. That is why I chose to go into marine sciences.
S&S: Do you scuba dive?
McGlade: I have been scuba diving since I was 15. In those days, it was quite young to do that. What fascinated me was anything to do with being able to go under water, to be immersed in the whole ecology that I wanted to study. I’ve been on expeditions to places where no one has ever been before, where no humans have ever dived. I’ve seen many species around the world that had not yet been described. That, combined with sailing, has been just a passion for me. I am a water baby, if you might call it that.
S&S: How does your scientific training as a marine biologist guide your work?
McGlade: The special thing about marine scientists as a group—and I include in that oceanographers, marine ecologists, and many others—is that in the ocean, very much unlike in any other ecosystem, you find yourself always having to deal with integration: physics, chemicals, tides, currents, evolution, watching how species interact in sometimes very aggressive ways. It makes marine scientists a far more open minded group of people. Additionally, because the deep ocean is such a vast unknown—we know less about it than we know about some of the other planets— when you’re working in marine science and you are out at sea it always feels that you are really an explorer, that you are at the very edge of knowledge. Every time you go to sea, you really don’t know what’s going to turn up.
I used to do a lot of work in fisheries and in the ocean in Canada, in the 1980s, and I was part of a team that used to do the deep sea cruises. We looked at the kinds of fish that you find in the deep canyons off the East Coast. What was extraordinary was that your whole sensory perception, when you are trying to do things at depth, is much distorted. You are putting a troll net over the side and it is going down 2,000 feet or 3,000 feet. You are so lucky when you bring up anything at all, but it’s being brought up through the water, so it usually does not survive very well.
Nevertheless, the things that came up were unbelievable. Not only undescribed by science, but also opening up doors to ways of living of which we were completely unaware. I think my real passion of deep diving happened with a man called Jack Hollis. That’s really where my love affair with sensors began. It’s like going into space. As a human being, you rely entirely on this piece of metal around you at great pressures, it’s what protects you. In addition, you are using very early robotics: arms that would pick up small fragments or take photographs.
Then, of course, because energy was so scarce, you had to have the lights on for only short periods of time and, therefore, it was like a snapshot that would burn against your retina. I still can remember what it was like to see these things at depth and it was really much like flash photography, it was sort of printed on your brain. Now we have so many more opportunities to go into the deep ocean—but at that time it was just a completely alien world.
I found it amazing how little we still know about the deep ocean and how much we rely on instruments and sensors to find our way around. As humans we are pretty poor at seeing our way through the environment and so we need instruments to help us figure out what is happening.
S&S: The UNEP’s motto is “environment for development.” How do you interpret that and how does it guide your work for the United Nations?
McGlade: I try to equip people with the possibility that at very modest cost they can surround themselves with information that will not only help people in their daily lives but also help ministers, policy makers, and planners actually start to think about the environment as a vital part of everyday life. We have something called UNEP Live. It’s not about collecting just any kind of information. It’s about being very strategic and working with countries that really have not started down the road of observing the environment. It’s important that they don’t have to repeat mistakes of the past by investing in very, very expensive systems because with the appearance of the smart phone and other amazing solid state technology, we can measure air quality, noise, and so many things at a fraction of the cost of even just five or ten years ago.
We can find out a lot more about the environment, we can be more precise about what it means to live in a healthy environment, we can make sure that we are not exposed to too many chemicals, and we can avoid situations where we actually see that there is contamination. These are very urgent problems. They are the everyday happenstance of living in a city, where you are exposed to all kinds of particulate matter and other known causes of emphysema. So, we can enable people to make decisions that help them avoid contamination and lead a healthy life.
Within the UN, of course, development takes on many different forms. I’ve seen a fundamental shift in how information can help even the poorest people make their lives work in a better way. A very critical thing is, of course, telephones. They can provide very basic information on how to till soil and increase soil productivity, how to make sure that water is safe to drink, and many other things to do with health and so on. So, just putting into the hands of everyday life and people, even at the poorest end of society, the wherewithal to communicate with the very best in the world is not just providing information but really a complete revolution.
This also demands that the science we do is very different, because the traditional way of doing science, and UNEP is no exception, was to reduce things down until you have arrived at the correct answer. But what we see now, of course, is that with so many more people participating in information gathering, in just simply being more knowledgeable, having communities of practice, it’s turned the whole knowledge management on its head.
So, we first have to change people’s behavior and assumptions about where knowledge comes from. I call it “knowledge by inclusion.” Farmers, fishermen, and so on, have more tangible knowledge about what is going on in the environment than perhaps the person who is sitting in the capital writing a policy brief. That connection between the real world and those who are trying to develop good policy and planning is very, very short right now. It used to be a much more difficult thing.
That’s how it is possible to start prioritizing some of the really urgent problems. We have many issues. Only time will tell whether they will turn out to be critical. Take cities, for example: on the one hand, they are amazing, efficient machinery to help humans get through their daily business. However, more and more, we can see that cities encourage consumption, they encourage people to use more materials and not necessarily to recycle them. So, the footprint of people living in cities is much, much bigger and that is increasingly an environmental problem—a hidden problem, in some cases, but nevertheless increasing. As many people move into megacities, we are putting enormous strains on the ecosystems and on the services that they provide, way, way, way beyond the city limits.
As climate change starts to take hold, we can see this idea of compromised sustainability spreading around the world. The long-range effects of cities make other places more vulnerable and less resilient. Climate change is stressing various parts of the world to the point that people are migrating to survive. We see problems with water, with land, with loss of soil productivity. Our fundamental economic model no longer fits the purpose.
S&S: One of your research foci is the nonlinear dynamics of ecosystems. Is it hard to convince governments and the public that trends, such as climate change, can suddenly accelerate dramatically? Or to act decisively in the face of scientific uncertainty?
McGlade: When I consider our research and how I can bring some of those more advanced ideas into how UNEP does its daily work, it is very clear that if you want to do what I would call global scale base analytics that also works at the local scale, you need many, many, many different forms of information that come across many spatial scales. It’s not just simply downscaling. It is actually saying that space and place have to be dealt with very specifically: what happens in one part of the world may not be relevant to another and therefore this knowledge by inclusion— involving participants in the creation of contextual knowledge against which you can then test out different policies and see what the long-term effects will be—is vital.
Nonlinear dynamics tells us that there are, within systems thinking, situations which are called attractors and others that are called repellers. You make one decision, and another follows, and another follows—there’s a given trajectory into which you will fall and it will take you toward a certain goal. Then, if you take other kinds of decisions, you move further and further away. So, we see that as the complexity of decision making and of uncertainty tend to increase, people are hedging their bets and saying “Are we more certain about this or more certain about that?” It is very important that we understand not just how one decision will happen and what its consequences will be, but also the unintended consequences of other parallel decision-making processes that are happening. So, the more context that we have, especially local and spatial context, the more likely that we will be able to anticipate sudden, dramatic changes or the crossing of thresholds or even the possibility that we will have to act extremely clearly and decisively in times of high uncertainty.
S&S: What scientific and technical advances are most useful to addressing climate change?
McGlade: Renewable energy sources are making big steps forward and, obviously, they will continue to evolve. Hopefully, they will have the right cost profile, so that the incentive to invest in them will be very clear. There are also significant developments in materials that will enable us, for example, to reduce the weight of turbines and increase the tensile strength of rotors and propellers. That kind of research will make it far more likely that we can have a future that is 100 percent based on renewable energy and that we can walk away from fossil fuels. At the same time, it is very important that policymakers and citizens alike are able to really see the impact of their investments. That is why having sensors and sensor webs and being able to improve the level of observing that we have is a sort of two-edged sword because if people don’t see an immediate response then they become de-incentivized—“Don’t worry, nothing happened.” So, the idea that we are in it for the long term is something that has to really take root.
One of the fundamental changes that we need to look at is in the world financial system. In the past, we have invested in commodities. We should be moving toward investing in a regenerative economy, toward what we would call impact investing, where the investment is directly linked to, let’s say, an ecological output. To do that, you need a very, very good way to persuade people to, for example, sequester carbon or do other good things. We need a combination of sensors, observing, and networks that can elicit trust in a whole range of people, including those who farm or fish for a living, but also in the finance sector, to really get them to see what these estimates or data are telling them and that their investments are making a difference.
S&S: What is the role of geospatial technologies in addressing our global environmental challenges?
McGlade: In the next few months, we will take big steps to start to assimilate much of the new geodata that is becoming available and to use it in such a way that those people who have experience using Earth observation can still understand the big picture without being swamped. This is a different kind of big data, it is not the big data of social media and mobile telephones. This is big data being put to work and it could even be that it is put to work on an extremely local level. At the same time, it will help UNEP and the UN as a whole keep track of what’s happening globally. The role of geospatial technologies is a given, but how we use them so that people who are not so technically advanced or skilled can make use of them in everyday life, that, I think, is the gap we still need to bridge. That’s one of the things that I hope we’ll be doing over the coming years, through UNEP and through all of our country programs. We are just trying to make sure that—whether you are sitting in Palau, in London, in rural Africa, or the Mid-West of the United States—the citizens and the businesses and the governments can have access to the very best information.
S&S: What can we do to increase the effectiveness of citizen science and crowd sourcing in dealing with the challenge of climate change?
McGlade: The effectiveness of those data programs I’ve been describing and of the massive amounts of data that come in is enhanced by citizen science, if only because people learn more about what the data are telling. I’m a fundamental believer in global citizens observing systems. I spend a lot of time working on ways to see that they are not only authentic, but help to empower communities to understand not only what is going on in the environment around them, but also how they can themselves become participants in policy making.
Crowd sourcing and citizen science are very closely tied together. For example, there are some excellent citizen science programs on air quality where people have taken the effort to work at a neighborhood level to deliver very, very precise information on air quality by collecting samples and then taking them to laboratories and producing good maps of air quality. National government ministries and others can use that data to make decisions about traffic flows and so on. That’s an organized citizen science approach. Similarly with biodiversity, groups of people are gathering information on birds and plants, even to the level of reporting to the Convention on Biodiversity.
With the advent of mobile phones and, particularly, of smart phones that have not only very sophisticated ways of measuring but that can be equipped with additional sensors, you have the possibility of doing crowd-sourcing. For example, when I was working for the European Environment Agency, we received data from mobile apps that could detect whether you were indoors or outdoors and would transmit ten-second sound recordings that we could use to do very accurate noise mapping. It’s turned out to be extremely interesting for groups who are looking not only at traffic flows but also at what happens around airports. The data themselves are being used in legal cases and in some of the national monitoring programs.
So, speaking fairly broadly about citizen science and crowd sourcing, if they are set up well and done well, we can have both ends of that spectrum supporting, for example, what’s happening in the Arctic: quite a number of communities there, under a global observing program that I set up, are nominating local people to document what is happening. For example, on the Greenland ice cap, they are taking daily measurements of ice thickness, temperatures, and so on. In places where climate change is happening very quickly and where researchers can’t afford to go and stay, citizen science is a perfect way to monitor long-term trends.