Reflections on another day of discussing big data for development

Posted by on December 15, 2015  /  0 Comments

ESCAP is part of the UN. By design, it is better positioned to work across silos than specialized agencies such as the ITU and WHO. One of the key points made about the sustainable development goals that were recently adopted is that they require working across silos. Big data naturally cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It transcends organizational silos.

So I did not think it was a waste of my time to spend two days discussing big data for sustainable development at a workshop they pulled together. At some of the recent meetings on big data that I participated in there were too many people who weren’t focused on development and/or could not appreciate the benefits of big data. I thought the people who come to ESCAP meetings care primarily about development. I was not wrong, for the most part, the discussions showed.

But even development practitioners can get confused sometimes. The issue was a claim that big data harmed the environment more than the aviation industry. The claim was said to be supported by two studies. Just because studies exist, it does not mean that we should take them seriously.

I had written somewhat harshly about the fallacies embedded in these kinds of studies some time back:

I don’t want to waste too much time on this, but this kind of research makes two classic errors: first, it does not assess the websearch in relation to whatever it replaces. So a person doing product comparison on the web has to be compared with a person physically comparing prices in multiple shops, using walking, public transport, a Prius, a Ferrari, etc. Obviously, the research will have a bigger carbon imprint than the search.

Second, this whole approach is Luddite, in that it does not account for the fact that we as humans need to do new and better things, rather than just do the same old, same old. So even if the above opportunity cost problem is addressed, the fact that the Google searches may be improving the quality of the user’s life is not addressed.

By doing the research, the researcher is burdening Mother Gaia, by publicizing it the Times is burdening Mother Gaia, and by blogging about it I am really hammering her. People who are into this line of thinking should consider low-carbon imprint ways of euthanising themselves. Because, that, we can be sure, will have the lowest carbon imprint.

And then the web spat out this story:

In Beijing’s environmental bureau, a team of engineers tend to giant mainframe computers that keep a watchful eye on the city’s pollution.

Using everything from factories’ infrared profiles to social media posts, the machines can call up three-day pollution forecasts with resolution of up to 1 kilometre squared and detect trends up to 10 days out.

The computer programme, developed by IBM, is one of several high-tech measures, ranging from drones and satellites to remote sensors ..

Read more at:

The benefits of getting rid of actual sources of pollution obviously outweigh the energy consumption of the computers.

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