Why is the sustainability community so bad at sharing data?

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Last month, tech companies got together and within 48 hour notice over 200 leading developers unlocked collaboration and innovation to share data and find the best and most efficient ways to tackle the UK flood crisis. Tyler Christie, ceo of big data firm Amee, asks why the sustainability community is so bad at sharing intelligence that could benefit both it and the rest of society.

Sustainability advocates have been banging on for years about the climate crisis we face. Last month, the 

UK faced the height of its flooding crisis. Whole towns were under water, transport links broken, and supply chains disrupted. The Government appeared to be on the back foot with David Cameron receiving criticism for how it was dealing with the crisis and, even worse, facing blame for the situation due to recent cuts to flood defence funds.

Unique response to flooding crisis

Then a unique event happened. The Government collaborated with east London’s burgeoning tech community and discovered a huge outpouring of interest and goodwill from talented developers who want to build applications that would help people get better information on how to deal with the crisis. The resulting one-day event not only produced some innovative applications that immediately helped people, it also galvanised a community and inspired the Government to open up more data. 


photo: What London would look like if the Thames barrier was breached.

Unfortunately, the realm of sustainability seems to be lagging behind such developments in other sectors. 

Sustainability data – from company carbon emissions disclosure to product footprints or sustainability certifications to business best practices – remains largely in separate, closed silos. For instance it is quite difficult and costly to obtain carbon emissions disclosure data on many companies at once even though the Carbon Disclosure Project has been collecting such data for more than 10 years. As another example, it’s very inefficient to find best practices on simple things like how to reduce your company’s energy consumption, even through organisations such as the Guardian Sustainable Business and Business in the Community. 



Charging for access for data: outmoded

This is largely due to current holders employing business models that rely on charging for access to data rather than empowering people with free access to the data and then providing services that help maximise value from the data. Changing to the latter approach is not only better for them, as it will open up new opportunities to collaborate and grow with their clients, it is inevitable. 

Disruptive models

The growing demand and expectation to be able to access data to enhance decision-making and leverage collaboration with communities like the UK flood developers in east London will disrupt these closed approaches. 

Big, open data is transforming the way companies, governments and consumers function. Aaron Levie, ceo at Box, provides some great examples of how big data is transforming and disrupting companies in a recent post ‘How will your company compete in the information economy?‘ And Gavin Starks, ceo of the Open Data Institute, explains the opportunity open data increasingly presents to increase efficiency whether it is in government, across cities, or anywhere in his post ‘Open Data movement an un-stoppable force‘. 


As these two trends of big data and open data converge, and our ability to utilitise the vast amounts of data improves, we can expect an acceleration in its impact across industries and in our daily lives. 

Hopefully, more sustainability data providers will wake up while they still have a chance and take advantage of the opportunity before them to both improve their business and maximise the benefit their data can have in making our planet more sustainable. I’m sure some will need prodding to change. However, for inspiration, they only need ask some of the flood survivors how valuable it was to be more aware of their flood risks and where they could get appropriate sandbags and other defences to protect themselves. 


As the impacts of climate change become more prevalent and extreme, expect more sources of inspiration to connect and share information.



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