EEA's mission commits itself to providing timely, targeted, relevant and reliable environmental information to policy-making agents and the public.
There are many information users. For example, EU policy-makers need quality and timely information to better develop and implement environmental policies, and assess whether their policies are working or not. Information also empowers citizens and business to act.
We have the information – but we just don't share it enough
Globally and in Europe, we already have a lot of information – from satellites, sensor networks, NGOs, citizen scientists and the list goes on. But we just don't share it enough. Much of it is kept separate in silos and compartments.
True, there are many networks sharing environmental information. But the sharing can often be improved, and sharing between networks really needs work.
Sharing comes with other challenges
Furthermore, any step of an information management process - from identifying data to collection, distribution and communication - can be burdened with gaps or problems. Questions need to be answered and infrastructures developed before sharing becomes useful. That's where SEIS comes in.
Information is a prerequisite for environmental improvement
Europe faces challenges: One of the key findings of the EEA's European environment state and outlook 2010 synthesis report (SOER 2010) was that major environmental challenges remain which will have significant consequences in Europe if left unaddressed. The continuing depletion of Europe's stocks of natural capital and flows of ecosystem services will ultimately undermine Europe's economy and erode social cohesion. This prospect is not limited to Europe – we live in an increasingly inter-connected world with shared global megatrends.
People want to help: Fortunately, we want to secure a healthy environment. In the face of today's financial crisis and rapidly changing world, economic prosperity and human health are tightly bound up with it. Many stakeholders – policy-makers, decision-makers, energy producers, farmers, urban residents and hopefully you -- want to help.
Good information is needed: For individual and collective action to happen, we all need an excellent, common, accessible environmental knowledge base as a foundation. Information is a prerequisite for improvement.
See the big picture: We need to look at the whole picture, not just its parts, to develop proper responses. Another key realisation from SOER 2010 was that today's global environmental challenges are becoming increasingly complex, in large part because of the many inter-linkages across environmental and sectoral topics. Our global food challenge is an excellent example, with links to agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, water, floods, disaster relief… If we don't see the parts holistically, we won't solve the problem.
See now and far away: History is no longer a good indicator of the future. Today's changes can be explosive. We need to look more at what is happening now and everywhere. And we need to be more vigilant in detecting early warning signals in far away and unusual places, many of which are now unconnected from the mainstream, on the edges. That means keeping a close eye on glaciers melting in Greenland to project global climate change impacts. Or on the status of fish stocks in our shared seas.
EEA depends on information: The European Environment Agency's (EEA) mission commits itself to provide timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy-making agents and the public. For EEA, at least 80 % of all the environmental data and information that it uses has a 'spatial' dimension. 'Spatial' (or 'geographic') information describes a location and properties of phenomena on the earth's surface. Public authorities at all levels in Europe regularly manage and use geospatial information.
All levels of government need it: National authorities need quality information to prepare for emergencies such as floods, or to manage accidents such as toxic or oil spills. National environmental authorities in the EU also have many legal obligations to report their environmental data and information to EU bodies such as EEA. In turn, EEA assesses the information for its different products such as the SOER. EU policy-makers need quality and timely SOER information on the state of Europe's environment, trends, pressures and drivers to better develop and implement environmental policies. They then need it to assess whether their policies are working or not. European public authorities also report their regional environmental information, for example, to UN bodies to produce global assessments.
Don't forget citizens and business: Furthermore, environmental information is needed to empower citizens, so they can effectively influence public policy. They want to make informed decisions about the environment and how they consume. As the environment is a public good, they have a right to widely available information, such as air quality in their neighbourhood. European businesses also use environmental information, for example, to track their impacts on the environment; predict future supplies of resources needed for operations; or as an incentive to develop innovative commercial solutions for environmental problems.
We have the information – but we just don't share it enough
We have a lot of information: Globally, we have a huge amount of environmental data and information, covering a wide range of topics from different sources and people. For example, looking specifically at Europe, EU satellites are capturing volumes of images about how we use land and thereby impact the environment. National environmental institutions are collecting data on air quality using vast networks of automatic land-based sensors. Commercial ferries are using sensors to collect water quality data on route. And then there are the countless NGOs, scientific organisations, non-governmental organisations, local communities and citizens who contribute, be it about climate change, invasive marine species or urban environments.
But it's dispersed: But much of this data and information continues to be kept separate in silos and compartments. To some degree, that's human nature. Locally, we do a fair job as information is often shared in response to local needs and demands, and because of the proximity and familiarity between individuals and communities. But as geographic scope extends, sharing tends to decline, even though the information may be there. Long distances… different cultures, languages and technologies… different formats and standards… Keeping information hidden can also be deliberate, driven by territoriality, competition or profit – information means power for some.
We also have sharing networks: The world does have many national, regional and international networks of people and organisations, geared to sharing geographic and environmental information. Examples include the global Group on Earth Observations (GEO), the European environment information and observation network (Eionet), and countless nation-based and community-based networks devoted to specific locations or environmental topics. But sharing information within these networks can often be improved. Even more so, the sharing between networks needs work. Otherwise, information gaps will prevail.
Sharing comes with other challenges
The information cycle is complex: The lack of sharing isn't the only problem for users. Any step of an information management process or cycle can be burdened with gaps or problems.
Data identification and collection: It starts with identifying what data to collect in the first place – what is it that users want in the end? The next step, data collection, entails numerous decisions. For example, from where should the data be geographically sourced? Who should collect it -- authorities or citizens? What kinds of technologies should be used -- satellites or land-based sensors?
Processing and products: Once the data is collected, where does it go next? Will it automatically be wired to a central database? Does it need to go through many hands before arriving at a final destination? Once arrived, how will it be processed and who will do the processing? Does it need to be verified by experts or quality assured by data handlers? What kinds of datasets or data products are envisioned? Will they be static, like a graph, or interactive, like a map application?
Distribution and communication: Once the data is available, how will it be distributed and communicated? How will potential users be able to search for and discover it, download it and then finally use it? Is the data for everyone, or just some people or groups? How will it be grouped with other datasets? Will users be able to easily identify what the data is and where it came from, in case they have concerns?
Using ICTs: Is there any point at which there is too much data in one place and it all becomes unmanageable for the user? Or have our technologies progressed enough to allow vast amounts to be stored and efficiently used in one place? How can we best use advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) to generate an up-to-date view on the state of the environment?
Fast data: Last but not least, what about the timing? Going through all the steps above could take days or even years. But that's not very helpful if a user needs information to solve an environmental challenge today. So how can they get data that is asnear-real time as possible?
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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