Interview: UN/WDC “Data For Climate Action” Challenge – What Data Scientists Need to Know

We ask UN Global Pulse Director about the 'Data For Climate Action' Challenge, the best sources of climate data, examples of using data for climate mitigation and climate adaptation, and resources for convincing climate change skeptics.

Global Pulse, the United Nations innovation initiative on big data, and Western Digital Corporation, a global leader in data storage technologies and solutions, launched a few days ago the Data for Climate Action challenge to harness data science and big data from the private sector to fight climate change. Data scientists, researchers, and innovators from around the world are encouraged to apply and submit their proposals at by 10 April 2017.

KDnuggets is helping to promote this global challenge and I had an opportunity to ask Robert KirkpatrickRobert Kirkpatrick, Director, UN Global Pulse, Executive Office of the Secretary-General about this challenge.

Gregory Piatetsky: What are the best resources for data about climate change and projections for likely impact of climate change?

Robert Kirkpatrick: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regularly publishes reports that synthesize the most current science and research on climate change. As the international body responsible for reviewing, assessing, and synthesizing the most up-to-date climate research, the IPCC and its reports benefit from the contributions of thousands of scientists around the world.

The IPCC's work is split among multiple working groups and task teams. IPCC Working Group I focuses on the physical science aspects of climate change and the climate system (including changes in global temperature, concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, and climate models and projections, etc.). IPCC Working Group II focuses specifically on the likely impacts of climate change, including how socio-economic and natural systems are likely to be affected. All of the working groups publish detailed reports that summarize their findings, as well as summaries for decision makers. All of the most recent IPCC publications and assessments can be accessed here.

GP: here are 2 charts from the latest IPCC Summary for Policymakers

Ipcc Global Surface Temperature 1850 2011
(a) Annually and globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature anomalies relative to the average over the period 1986 to 2005.

Ipcc Global Emissions 1850 2011
(d) Global anthropogenic CO2 emissions from forestry and other land use as well as from burning of fossil fuel, cement production and flaring.

GP: This challenge calls for proposals focusing on climate mitigation, climate adaptation, and the linkages between climate change and the UN 2030 Agenda. Can you give an example of data-driven research for climate mitigation? What is a good example of research on climate adaption?

Robert Kirkpatrick: One example of research that can support efforts to mitigate climate change (reduce greenhouse gas emissions) is research that optimizes public transit routes in order to better meet demand. Optimizing public transit can reduce congestion on roads as well as the number of vehicles driving, and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Often this research analyzes mobility patterns derived from big data sources, such as aggregated and anonymised call records. By understanding how and where people are moving, policymakers can redesign routes to serve the areas with the highest demand, or areas that are currently unconnected but where high demand exists. Much research on this topic exists (one example is this paper [1].)

An example of research that could support climate adaptation and increase resilience is research that helps to inform and improve disaster response. Climate change may cause flooding in some locations and droughts in other. To give you one example of how research can help to improve resilience to these shocks: aggregated mobile data has been used to understand the mobility patterns of people affected by floods. This research yielded insights that could improve disaster relief management and infrastructure planning.

GP: US is a major CO2 emitter, and also the country with the most climate change skeptics, with the majority of Republicans and many in the Trump administration who doubt scientific consensus on climate change. Is there a research (whether part of this UN challenge or not) on effective ways to convince the skeptics, or find climate-friendly actions that the doubters can agree with?

Robert Kirkpatrick: While convincing individuals who are already skeptical of climate science can be difficult, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication published a study in January 2017 that suggests people can actually be "inoculated" against misinformation on climate change before they are exposed to it.

Researchers tested messages that
(1) emphasized the scientific consensus around climate change and
(2) warned of the misinformation that is most commonly circulated.

These "inoculation messages" were extremely effective in counteracting the misleading messages that people are typically exposed to (which often suggest that there is no scientific consensus on climate change, when in fact the consensus is overwhelming:
97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is occurring).

Moreover, these messages were effective across the political spectrum. The Center describes the effect as similar to a vaccine: "Just as a small dose of vaccine activates the body's immune system to protect against an infectious disease, so message inoculation can help protect the mind against the effects of disinformation." [2] The full paper describing this research is available here.

You mentioned the current U.S. administration. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has done some recent research suggesting that people who voted for Mr. Trump do largely support several policies to reduce climate change and its impacts. According to the Center's recent research, approximately half of these voters think global warming is happening. The Center also found that

"62% of Trump voters support taxing and/or regulating the pollution that causes global warming, with 31% supporting both approaches. In contrast, only 21% support doing neither." [3]

In addition, the researchers found that 77% of Trump voters support generating renewable energy (solar and wind) on public land; 71% support funding more research into clean energy; and 52% support eliminating all federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. The Center's research suggests that there are a number of climate-friendly policies and actions that would find robust support amongst Trump voters. You can read the detailed report here.


1. Çolak, S., Lima, A., & González, M. C. (2016). Understanding congested travel in urban areas. Nature communications, 7.