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Why the UN World Data Forum Matters to Canada

Thanks to the power of artificial intelligence, we can 'model' better than ever—data gives us detailed and accurate blueprints of where, say, Canada’s fresh water is headed, set against the backdrops of climate change and ever-increasing pollution.
By Scott Higgins on October 23, 2020

Full disclaimer: this is probably a niche passion, but I just can’t help getting excited about the United Nations World Data Forum this week.

While this year’s event is, of course, happening online, it’s usually a dynamic and interactive affair, which, for me, as a freshwater scientist here in Canada, reveals just how far we have come in terms of we can do with the data we collect in the field to improve the health of our environment. 

An environmental dataset may sound like a pretty cumbersome and vague notion; I am used to people’s eyes politely glazing over when I even mention the term.

But it is actually pretty simple—a critical indicator of what is going on in our environment (say, how much phosphorus is in our lakes or the health of Lake Trout). We take what we learn from these datasets to see if current environmental practices and policies are working, and to decide whether we need to modify existing ones or implement new ones. 

Well, maybe it is not quite that simple.

I work at IISD Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario, where we have tracked the health of real lakes for more than 50 years. When we first started, field measurements were often collected at weekly or biweekly intervals, and usually during daylight hours.

There is one clear way to harness the power of all these exciting yet disparate initiatives happening across the country—the nascent Canada Water Agency.

I can regale you with some heady tales of me scribbling down critical data about the chemistry of our lakes into a tiny yellow notebook in a rocking boat amidst torrential downpours.

Today, such data collection is supplemented by satellites and sensors placed directly in the environment, collecting information at second intervals 24/7. A few numbers in a notebook have become thousands, millions or even trillions of datapoints. At a few megabytes, our first laptop computers wouldn’t have been able to store a fraction of this information, let alone process it.

Thanks to the power of artificial intelligence, data also now allow us to model better than ever—providing us with detailed and accurate blueprints of where, say, Canada’s fresh water is headed, set against the backdrops of climate change and ever-increasing pollution.

They can also then easily feed into what we call datastreams. These are larger bodies of datasets from diverse sources (from dedicated scientific facilities to community-based monitoring programs where everyday folk can sample their local river and mail in the results), which reveal truths about larger ecosystems, such as Lake Winnipeg. 

Several years ago, when I was a student, Canada’s much-revered Stephen Lewis gave a public lecture at my university. As if it were yesterday, I can still remember his discussion about the importance of scientific data for decision making and, critically, to build a more just and better planet. While the goal hasn’t shifted since then, the tools at our fingertips have greatly advanced.

As the UN World Data Forum (now underway) was approaching, I was reflecting on how far we have come here in Canada. But it struck me that there is one clear way to harness the power of all these exciting yet disparate initiatives happening across the country, from datastreams to AI, to translate that science and data into real action—the nascent Canada Water Agency.

In a world of limited time and resources, the new agency should involve pulling all these wonderful, diverse streams of work together to build an expansive and comprehensive map of the health of Canada’s freshwater

The federal government has dedicated funds and energy to launch a new pan-Canadian agency to protect the 20% of the world’s freshwater that we are lucky enough to host in this country. Data will, of course, be key. How else do we know where we currently stand and therefore what we need to do? 

But we don’t need to start from scratch.

In a world of limited time and resources, a prudent imagining of the new agency should involve pulling all these wonderful, diverse existing streams of work together to build an expansive and comprehensive map of the health of Canada’s freshwater from which we can make sound policy decisions.

The onus will fall on the agency to make sure these Canadian innovations are sufficiently funded, resourced, empowered to share resources and knowledge, and duly thrive—with the obvious impact being the protection of this critical resource on which we all depend.

The UN World Data Forum, at its core, is really just about people coming together to reimagine how we use what we already have at their fingertips in order to improve the lives of everyday people. 

What better model for our burgeoning Canada Water Agency?

This article originally appeared in The Hill Times on October 22, 2020. It has been reprinted with permission. 

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