Big Data for Sustainable Development in the Caribbean
The term Sustainability is trending globally. It has become a movement amongst civil society, governments and public relations and although it can mean several things, in 2019, it is at its highest point within the past five years.
The most used definition of sustainable development comes from the Brundtland commission: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This can have several interpretations depending on your professional point of view. From a Public Sector perspective, this could mean overall economic development while ensuring that natural resources are sufficiently protected for future generations. Alternatively, from a corporate perspective, this could mean the ability to create goods and services today without compromising the ability of the organization to produce in a later period. Similarly to the term sustainable, the terms renewable and big data have also been trending, which isn't surprising as the United Nations (UN) sees renewables as a major driver towards combating climate change and the use of big data as a transparent method of measuring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As mentioned, sustainability can exist at both the level of the nation and the firm. Both entities set goals and seek to achieve them through continuous measurement and reference. In business, data is used to monitor key performance metrics. Metrics are simply measures that describe the current progress level within a defined category (eg, Average household electricity usage, or greenhouse gas emission per unit of production). Some well known international frameworks for sustainability for both the Public and Private Sector are;
1) Natural Resource Protection and Child Health Indicators - Indicators of natural resource protection and child health that complements the governance, social, and economic indicators.
2) The Gross National Happiness Index - An index that measures nine key aspects of happiness: psychological well-being, health, work-life balance, cultural diversity and
resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience
(biodiversity), living standard (material well-being), and education.
3) Happy Planet index - is an ecological efficiency measure—that is, it aims to capture the degree to which happy life years are achieved per unit of environmental impact.
4) Environmental Efficiency of well-being - indicates a country with high well-being relative to their environmental consumption (and vice versa) index that takes social well-being and the ecological footprint into account .
5) Environmental Performance Index - this measures actual policy performance with respect to (1) reducing environmental stresses on human health and (2) promoting ecosystem vitality and sound natural resource management. This is done by measuring country performance against absolute targets .
1) The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) - G4 is a voluntary framework for sustainability
reporting on economic, environmental, and social dimensions of products, activities,
2) The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) - SASB sets standards for company performance and compiles investor information.
3) The Dow Jones Sustainability Index: the DJSI family tracks the stock performance of the world's leading companies in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria.
4) FTSE Russel - the FTSE Russel provides analytics, ratings, and indexes covering thousands of companies worldwide. FTSE uses an overall rating system built up from the exposures and scores of the three pillars of ESG and a dozen thematic issues.
5) Thomson Reuters Corporate Responsibility Indexes and Ratings - The current Thomson Reuters Corporate Responsibility Indexes utilize the ASSET4202 ESG database, which rates the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) practices of 4,600 companies globally in 226 key performance indicators of ESG performance. The indexes employ these data and apply different levels of weight depending on the industry, country, and regional focus of a company.
Upon inspection, we can notice some common themes amongst these sustainability indices. At the national level there are several dimensions to sustainability, including but not limited to health, environmental wellness, psychological well-being, education, good governance, living standards, culture , and community. These are all complex concepts to quantify and heavily rely on underfunded and under-resourced public agencies to execute periodically, largely using traditional statistical survey methodologies. Comparing the Private Sector Indices, it can be noted that there exists an increasing number of Market research and Financial service providers incorporating ESG metrics within their reporting. For instance, in 2014, access to Sustainalytics ESG information was made available on Bloomberg platforms, an indication of the mainstreaming of sustainability in capital markets. The increase in popularity suggests that Sustainability data is becoming increasingly valuable to investors and is playing a role within decision making. The private sector, however, has a key advantage over the public sector as the
profit motivation influences their research and spend on ESG sustainability data, whereas the public sector depends largely on grant funding, particularly within the developing world to mobilize and conduct such cutting edge research consistently. Based on recent trends in the development and usage of sustainability indices we can assume that they can play a key role in shaping the future of nations and investment. The question that remains is how can this data be gathered and utilized within the developing world? Fortunately, the big data revolution presents an opportunity for both the private and public sectors to not only collect, combine and analyze these complex sustainability data-sets but monitor them in real-time.
So what is big data?
Big data has largely been an abstract concept and is not easy to understand unless you have direct exposure to the field. In business, big data analytics enable organizations to use unstructured data from sensors or social media, etc and transform it into actionable insights to achieve the organization’s targets. Significant resources, skilled personnel , and infrastructure , however, are required to achieve this sort of digital transformation. Fortunately for the public sector, there has been a big data revolution, which encompasses the open data movement, the rise of crowd-sourcing, affordable online training, the falling cost of high-end computing software as well as the emergence and availability of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT). In layman's terms, it is now cheaper and more accessible than ever to deploy technological solutions to collect, process and analyze data from various sources of complex types of data in real-time. This makes sense with regards to monitoring and tracking the SDGs and Sustainability Indices as it can provide a transparent and standardized methodology for data collection and reporting across the globe.
How does using Big Data for Sustainability Analytics benefit the Caribbean?
Many Caribbean Nations are assimilated within the UN System, therefore under that umbrella seek to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The challenge with this, however, lies in the ability of each country to mobilize, collect, process and utilize data in a manner that that can be verified and is timely to address growing concerns. In the private sector, large corporations, particularly those within the extractive and manufacturing industries have adopted health, safety, and environmental management practices which incorporates reporting, however, this data is largely for internal optimization and much is still to be done to encourage corporations to publish their sustainability data. For Caribbean Investment Banks, investment in sustainability start-ups and projects are largely based on returns to capital employed, with sustainability targets being an added benefit rather than the primary objective. This is a challenge that can be addressed with big data, as without consistent and reliable data to quantify volumes and the impact or savings that can be derived from sustainability projects, it is difficult for investors or even donors to justify undertaking the venture. Corporations such as Google have deployed their artificial intelligence (Ai) and IoT solutions aimed at quantifying complex data on waste and energy efficiency in order to kickstart the circular economy as well as improve their own business models. Similar techniques can be deployed in the Caribbean Region to track carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings, determine major contributors to poor air quality, monitor traffic, optimize public transportation, measure product performance, improve healthcare and other public services just to name a few. The future for these technologies remain bright and the possibilities seem endless.
The Caribbean region, although small in stature compared to the rest of the World, can improve significantly in its effectiveness of measuring its sustainability by using insights from big data. The data that can be extracted from these initiatives can be used to create new circular industries that will provide employment while providing a net positive benefit to each country. While a lot of work and investment is needed to achieve this, this must absolutely be a priority to guide decision making on new national development projects or start-ups. Once this can be achieved, in the near future, I strongly believe that we will not only consume resources based on our current needs but with the knowledge of how our behavior affects both our current and future selves.
Author: Daryll Griffith, B.Sc, MBA-Candidate Sustainable Energy Management
Professional Portfolio: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daryllgriffith
Daryll Griffith is a Co-Founder of REgenTT and a Business Analyst by trade with a passion for Sustainability.
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