Can Big Data Help Save Our Planet?

Big data and the internet of things (IoT) are taking green to a new level. A recently released report from analytics services firm Teralytics, in conjunction with IoT firm Telefónica NEXT and sustainability solutions provider South Pole Group, demonstrates that big data could be used to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The study examined aggregated and anonymized mobile network data collected from phone calls, text messages, app use and internet browsing to estimate levels of carbon emissions and air pollution in Nuremburg, Germany. These data sets encompassed human mobility patterns—including how people use transport systems such as vehicles, subways and commuter trains. By combining this information with data about the emissions generated from different transport modes, researchers estimated air pollution levels and GHG emissions for the city.

Altogether, the group examined data flows across more than 1.2 million transportation routes, as well as meteorological data. They plugged in data from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMUB) about emission levels generated by different traffic carriers to complete the equation. Finally, they validated the accuracy of the findings by comparing the results with existing data from air pollution measuring stations. The result was an accuracy rate of 77 percent.

Ultimately, the project could lead to improved air quality and better carbon strategies for cities around the world, noted Georg Polzer, CEO of Teralytics. Urban planners and engineers could use data to create better designs for cities, systems and infrastructure.

The data could also be used to shape public policy and programs. Among other things, researchers are studying how travel routes, stoplights, airports, large-scale events and different types of vehicles impact pollution and GHGs.

The groundbreaking approach is off to a solid start. The research consortium has received additional funding from European public-private innovation partnership Climate KIC. Its Low Carbon City Lab (LoCaL) initiative connects cities, business, academia and non-governmental organizations to devise better environmental and social solutions.

To be sure, as the planet heats and ocean levels rise, a more sustainable future is vital. “While our contemporary urban lifestyles result in the generation of harmful greenhouse gases, they also generate large amounts of behavioral data,” Polzer points out. “This data can be used to give city planners insights into how human mobility contributes to pollution.”