How Big Data is driving sustainability

ShutterstockAndrey Kozachenko
Connecting large amounts of data can inform and advance effective sustainability solutions

Big Data allows businesses to analyze large data sets in order to make more informed strategic decisions. Thanks to connected devices and predictive analytics, data is more prevalent than ever, and companies that effectively can put it to use are enjoying the benefits. 

Not only are organizations harnessing and analyzing more data, but they're also collaborating with it. This collaboration is being used to meet a slew of sustainability goals, addressing environmental, social and governance issues all over the globe, from conservation and water risk to slavery. 

Identifying slavery in supply chains

The United Nations International Labor Organization estimates that over 20 million people are forced into labor, despite that the organization officially banned slavery in 1948. Individuals forced into these horrid conditions generate as much as $150 billion in annual revenue for their captors. This problem has gone largely unidentified because the scopes of these global supply chains are quite extensive. The captors and their slaves often slip through the cracks.

Enter Made in a Free World, a nonprofit that uses a global database to track and identify materials and goods associated with slave labor. MIAFW is made up of like-minded companies, activists and consumers that want to shed light on these practices and expose slavery practices. By sharing data and tracking buying patterns, MIAFW identifies over 54,000 goods and their supply chains. Users at a consumer and enterprise level can access this information and determine if they're purchasing or using goods that have been made through slavery. 

Forest conservation

As the global human population grows, developing nations build up their infrastructure and resource consumption increases at an alarming rate. These uses need to be tracked in order to drive action on deforestation and the over consumption of natural resources.

Global Forest Watch, created by the World Resources Institute, leverages satellite technology, crowdsourcing and analytics to provide interactive tools for users to identify deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. This data is presented in formats such as ratings and interactive maps, presenting up-to-date information to empower the public. 

Collaboration for sustainable development

Big Data has brought an uptick in organizations sharing data for sustainable goals. Organizations that used to operate in their own silos are combining their resources to make an impact together.

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is an organization of governments, companies and international groups that strive to achieve sustainability goals by pooling their datasets to achieve a "more open, new and usable data to help end extreme poverty, combat climate change and ensure a healthy life for all." 

By 2030 members of the partnership plan to have a free and reliable source of up-to-date information for anyone interested in sustainability. They're targeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the U.N. identified in 2015, which include goals such as no poverty or hunger, quality education, gender equality, clean water, climate action and clean energy. 

Agricultural data tracking

Sustainable agriculture is crucial for the growing population. Farmers have always had a large amount of data to manage, but until recently they've never had a digital platform dedicated to them.

Farmeron is a cloud-based app that helps dairy and beef farmers track and manage livestock data, including health, milk production, reproduction and diet. By helping farmers of all sizes become more efficient, Farmeron hopes to promote sustainable agriculture. The Farmeron team is developing tools for crop management, as well. 

Environmental risk mapping

In addition to being an obvious necessity for life, water is also critical to global supply chains. Poor water management poses ecological and economic threats, and corporations wasting water can have harmful effects on both fronts. 

Aqueduct, a water-risk mapping tool also created by the World Resources Institute, uses data on water quantity, quality and regulatory issues to calculate water risk anywhere in the world. This interactive tool is free for online use. Users can focus on the most important factors for their respective industries, as well as view small areas or entire continents. Using a variety of possible scenarios, users also can see how water risk is expected to change over time. 

As the wealth of available data grows, more organizations are able to use it to promote ESG values. Whether it's developing smarter clean energy, more efficient resource consumption, eliminating slavery from supply chains or providing increased transparency, Big Data is providing a launch pad for ESG-focused solutions. 

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