Environment

Can Big Data ‘Solve’ Climate Change?

21st Mar `14, 11:12 AM in Environment

Digital data gets people thinking big these days — like, metaphysically big. It’s not totally surprising. Ninety per…

BDMS
Guest Contributor
 

Digital data gets people thinking big these days — like, metaphysically big. It’s not totally surprising. Ninety per cent of all such data was generated by us (and our machines) in the last two years, an explosion raising dystopian concerns about free will, human identity and self-knowledge. Yet Big Data’s promise is equally utopian. It’s seen by some as the best hope we’ve got to fix climate change. “We have this tremendous possibility,” said futurist Gerd Leonhard. “But what’s the trade-off?”

Leonhard spends much of his time probing such questions and delivering keynote speeches on them. Since 2001, his website claims, he’s “addressed over 350,000 executives and professionals.” I reached Leonhard recently by Skype at his home in Switzerland, during a brief lull in a lecture circuit that’s become “rather intense,” he admitted with a chuckle. Leonhard’s March itinerary alone included speaking gigs in Istanbul, London, Mumbai, Zurich, Sao Paulo, Geneva, Dubai and Birmingham.

About 2.5 billion people are now connected to the internet. Leonhard thinks the number will likely double in the next five years. Factor in the rapid global spread of smartphones, sensors and networks, he argues, and we may soon be generating enough useable data about human activity to “pretty much solve” the problem of climate change. Yet Leonhard has also taken to quoting Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright, who wrote, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

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