Global Adaptation Institute Pushes for Open Data at Durban

By Bonnie Bogle on Dec 01 2011

There has been a lot of chatter about open data in the climate change space in the lead up to United Nations COP 17 meetings starting in Durban this week. To get an insider's take I interviewed Dr. Bruno Sanchez, Director of Science and Technology at the Global Adaptation Institute (GlobalAI), before he flew to Durban. We know Bruno from our work this fall on gain.globalai.org, a data browser indexing 161 countries' vulnerabilities to climate change and readiness to receive investments to adapt to the coming changes. See Alex's blog post for more details on the Global Adaptation Index (GAIN) data browser.

Q: There is a lot of pre-meeting chatter about open data in the climate change space in the lead up to Durban. What are you hearing, and what does this mean for GlobalAI?

A: The good news about Durban is that the world is not waiting for a consensus in the negotiations on mitigation. What we are seeing is a growing movement searching for pragmatic solutions. To properly arrive to a solution we need to understand the problem and track the effect of those solutions. This is where open data comes into play.

To understand how let me use the Global Adaptation Index (GAIN) as an example. Our goal is to be relevant to the private sector by measuring a country´s vulnerability and also its readiness to implement adaptation projects. But we also bring to the table scientists, governments, NGOs, and international organizations. This ensures that we create a valid, robust metric that is relevant to all stakeholders. The beauty of open data and open source is that it provides full transparency and allows anyone to comment, criticize, and help us improve it. The result? We were able to define the problem, to know what we know, and also what we know we don´t know. It lets us navigate reality and help define data driven solutions, and track their impact. Open data is the catalyst of pragmatic solutions.

Q: How do you see GAIN as a player in a potentially growing open data space around the maturing climate change conversation?

A: GAIN is already able to pinpoint where a country lies in the global context and navigate through its strong and weak points. However, it quickly becomes apparent that we do have frustrating limitations, like data gaps or heterogeneous quality. This means that GlobalAI is actually advocating for better data, frequently updated where it makes sense.

Furthermore, as climate change is a global challenge with local solutions, it also means that the current country level in GAIN should be improved into the regional or local level. But we simply don´t have the data. This is especially important for countries like Canada, Russia, and China where the effects of climate change vary dramatically inside the country. This is not optional - everyone seeking a data driven approach needs that data, those maps. We need to gather the data, to analyze it, and to mine it. The exciting thing is that we are already seeing cases using new approaches like crowdsourcing.

Q: You are using a lot of open data sets (38) on GAIN to calculate countries' vulnerability to climate change and readiness to receive investment to adapt to the changing environment. How has the fact that you are only sourcing open data impacted GAIN?

A: First of all, GAIN is only possible thanks to open data. A few years ago, it would be impossible to start such a project because the data was locked inside a few offices. Furthermore, being able to use reputable sources as its underpinning helps streamline the creation of the Index with a reputable solid foundation and eases all stakeholders to take part in the Consultation process.

It is our experience that presenting GAIN upfront as open source and open data elevates the conversation to a new level where everyone becomes engaged.

Q: What data would you like to see opened up in the coming year?

A: In GAIN we have tried very hard to use measures that are not only relevant, but also available to as many countries as possible. Yet, out of the 192 UN countries at the time we started the Index, we were only able to rank 161. In fact navigating portals like data.worldbank.org reveals a wide range of reporting levels. I would like to see those data gaps disappear.

I would also love to see initiatives like data.gov spread to other countries.

Having said that, I don´t think the real next step is about a particular dataset. Is about shifting away from "open data evangelism" to "open by default". The incentives for that paradigm shift become clear in the framework of climate change and development. It is clear that no government alone is able to properly address the increasing challenges we face. The private sector needs to be drawn in, society in general will play an important role, as will NGOs and international institutions. The only way for everyone to be on the same track and avoid duplication of efforts is if everyone has the same data and can contribute to it.

Q: Is opening up raw data alone enough? What tools do you think are lacking in the data space to help people compare or visualize dense datasets?

Open data isn't only about numbers. There is a whole process involved. Defining the kind of data we want to gather comes first. Getting the data is obviously important, but so is making sure that data is accessible in the right formats and properly documented.

I've seen open data releases as pdf spreadsheets without definitions or documentation. There isn´t much you can do with that. Making sure the data is accessible in a relevant format is as important as actually having the data.

Q: When is the press conference in Durban and what are your goals?

Our Press Conference is on Saturday at 10:30 am (local time). On Sunday afternoon I will be participating also on a panel about Sustainable Development in South Africa, where I´ll focus on the role of open data. You can get an idea of what we'll be focusing in our writeup on The Adaptation Agenda in Durban.

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