To mark a year until the COP26 conference, Scotland’s Innovation Centres are hosting a virtual event, Countdown to COP26, which will explore how the nation can benefit from tackling climate change. Here Gillian Docherty, CEO of The Data Lab, tells Andrew Collier that data science is in the frontline of the climate crisis battle.
Data is the holy grail of the 21st century. It drives businesses, supports economies, improves healthcare and empowers scientific innovation. And it can help the fight against climate change, too.
As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning grow in sophistication and power, the possibilities offered by data collection and analysis continue to grow. They are now some of the most powerful tools in the armoury in global efforts to achieve decarbonisation.
They also happen to be an area where Scotland is emerging as a leader. The Data Lab is one of the country’s network of seven Innovation Centres, all of which are tasked with bringing business, academia, economic development agencies and the public sector together to drive change.
The aim is to build collaborations by nurturing advances in technology, building on the country’s reputation for innovative excellence. This includes addressing the critical problem of climate change.
Countdown to COP26 – 3 November 2020
The Data Lab will be bringing its expertise in this to an important one-day online conference scheduled for November 3. The Herald is partnering with the Innovation Centre network in exploring co-operation on climate issues in the lead up to the COP26 gathering in Glasgow next year.
This COP26 event is set to be the most important international meeting on the subject since the 2015 Paris agreement. It is expected to attract some 30,000 delegates and capture the attention of the world.
Gillian Docherty, The Data Lab’s CEO, says that Scotland has a particularly strong track record of industry and academia working in partnership. “We exist to nurture these links with the aim of maximising the value we can gain from data, optimising innovation and creativity.”
What, though, can data bring to the fight against climate change? Gillian Docherty points to a number of projects involving her organisation that are already underway, including those using satellite imagery in areas such as crop growth production:
Satellites capture images of the Earth, using those and augmenting them with data from other sources, such as weather patterns and computer vision technologies.
You can then start to predict the crop yield of an individual field anywhere in the world. We’ve been working with an Edinburgh company called Global Surface Intelligence (GSI) on this.
Another project we’ve been involved in is with Ecometrica, an innovative company also based in the capital, using satellite imagery to help with water footprinting. Both of these ventures have also involved the Geosciences Department at the University of Edinburgh.
If an organisation was going to build a manufacturing plant in a certain region of the world, it would obviously have energy and water supply requirements. This technology allows the modelling of the impact of these requirements on that local area.
Would the resources be there? And would you be taking them from others in that region? Is it sustainable? There is now much more interest not just in a carbon footprint, but also in a water footprint. Data affords a way of getting a better insight into that type of challenge.
This may be a leading edge application of 21st century technology, but the use of data analysis in addressing the challenge of climate change is not new.
It dates back to at least 1974, when a team of scientists, including the American Nobel Prize winner F Sherwood Roland, carried out data analysis on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the ozone layer. This led to the international Montreal Protocol being adopted in order to phase out harmful atmospheric chemicals.
The output of collaboration as a whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Much of the real value The Data Lab adds is in bringing different stakeholders together to ensure that the outputs as a whole are greater than the sum of the parts.
Gillian Docherty explains:
Our role is to match commercial organisations with academia, so we can use that academic talent to help the company to innovate and to build new products and services.
This process can also potentially identify productivity and operational benefits. We help coach that organisation and assist them in the challenge, and we can provide access to other commercial entities in our network. We also have our own in-house team of data scientists we can deploy on projects.
Find out more about how you can work with our data scientists and get funding for your project
Of course, advances through use of data science and analysis are not confined to climate change – The Data Lab also has ongoing projects in housing, healthcare and the legal profession – but it does make an important contribution in this area.
Across the whole climate domain, whether it be elements of energy, transport, sewage, supply chains or other things, we believe that data can help build new products and solutions to meet those challenges.
For example, in energy we have several projects involving renewables. As we transition to this form of energy, we need to ensure that we are optimising the supply from and the maintenance of wind turbines.
We need to ensure that operationally they are as efficient as they can be. Data science can be a big help in meeting these types of challenges.
One particular project involving renewable energy involves assistance with predicting maintenance in order to reduce offshore turbine failure. Partners include the Glasgow company Spartan Solutions, the University of Strathclyde and a major UK offshore windfarm.
The Data Lab’s contribution to the forthcoming Countdown to COP26 conference will be to host a session discussing energy.
Our work cuts across other themes under discussion at the event as well, whether that’s the built environment, transport or food.
Energy is interesting because we’re seeing a reduction in usage through innovations such as the rollout of smart meters. They are making people much more aware of their consumption.
We are also seeing a transition to more efficient vehicles and transport and these are optimising the use of energy.
However, we want to ask if we are building the technology and the algorithms to ensure that as we charge electric cars, we are doing it at the optimal time in terms of grid energy production and supply and for obtaining power from renewable sources.
Interestingly, the session also includes a discussion on oil and gas, but Gillian Docherty points out that fossil fuels currently remain an important part of the energy mix.
Although an awareness of the ever-changing role and importance of data and technology are important, she says, the purpose of The Data Lab is not to engage in blue sky thinking, but to bring real-world, workable solutions to today’s problems.
It’s about how we optimise those industries as we do the energy transition work.
How can we use data and techniques to achieve the most efficient production? We’re obviously not just going to switch off oil tomorrow.
There’s a huge amount of research going on, but our role and that of the other Innovation Centres is around adoption. It’s about helping build products and services now.
A lot of the things we are doing are inspirational and they help you get up in the morning with a smile on your face. I really do have one of the best jobs in the world.
Original article in The Herald