Can public-private data-sharing help solve the climate crisis?
We’re all used to seeing world leaders gathered on a stage at events like COP27, talking up the prospects of a deal they’ve just negotiated to reduce collective carbon emissions. Unfortunately, nothing much ever seems to come of it.
Fundamentally, that’s because legislators and the public sector aren’t the only ones with the power – and responsibility – to fight climate change. The private sector has skin in the game too and might be better placed to do something about it. For one thing, businesses probably already have a decent sense of their environmental footprint. Sharing that information could enable much more meaningful progress against climate change.
A handful of companies has now joined forces to promote that very idea. The Industry Data for Society Partnership (IDSP) proposes to revive some of the public-private collaborations which used data to help health services respond to the Covid pandemic, then repurpose them to fight climate change and tackle other urgent social issues.
Led by Microsoft and Rolls-Royce spin-off R² Factory, which specialises in data services, it brings to the UK a public-private model of collaboration which has been honed over the past decade by multinational organisations running relief projects in developing countries.
LinkedIn is another of the seven firms behind the IDSP, having worked alongside Microsoft on a World Bank project to prove the value of this model for development efforts. In this setup, private tech companies and local government bodies formed collaborative teams, using their collective in-house data to generate potential solutions to specific social and environmental crises. A flagship project saw a team of big tech data experts help local officials fuse public and private data sets to reduce deaths from traffic incidents in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Bringing private-sector data to the table
Microsoft brought the model to Plymouth in December 2022, hosting a hackathon among defence firms local to the naval town. The participants worked together to merge public databases to create a socio-economic map, helping local officials better target aid to people in crisis.
The Plymouth event demonstrated what is possible from this kind of collaboration, the Institute of Analytics said in February. But big companies are still “too often unwilling to share their data and resources for the greater good”.
To help the cause, the IDSP has recruited two more UK firms: utilities Northumbrian Water and UK Power Networks (UKPN). Both are already committed to releasing data for the public good because regulations require them to.
Others in the scheme include Hewlett Packard Enterprises, which rents supercomputer resources to researchers building computer models to predict where the climate crisis will disrupt the food chain.
Similarly, Microsoft has contributed its Planetary Computer, a cloud computing service designed to help scientists and public officials make informed decisions from a suite of environmental data sets, which are housed within Microsoft’s global network of data centres. If successful, this would be Microsoft’s “biggest contribution to the protection of ecosystems”, it said last year: a global environmental monitoring tool. LinkedIn has brought to the partnership behavioural data that it provides to national statistics offices and which, via the World Bank, helps public officials to see which industries are going green or not.
Does the public sector have the right data skills?
But are public bodies ready to make use of this kind of data from the private sector? In 2021, the World Bank admitted that some of its data collaborations were being hindered by a lack of experts with the skills to use the data that private firms were bringing to them. UK data experts have also warned that the same issues are blighting Britain’s opportunities in this regard. As a result, the partnership has made upskilling a key part of its remit.
Matt Webb, head of enterprise data management at UKPN, says that his organisation found such varying levels of data competence among the 260 local councils it has worked with in south-east England that it developed a web portal to help them. Data experts can access UKPN’s data via the portal to use in their own analyses, while less data-literate officials can use the portal’s tools to analyse it in situ.
Webb points out that the utility recently earmarked all its data sets as “assumed open” for public use, to satisfy the terms of its operating licence renewal. That even meant sharing data for which UKPN could discern no obvious use, but which others might be able to exploit. “Our data has value beyond our uses and beyond our perception,” says Webb. But equally, “It would be foolish to push everything out,” he says, as users would be swamped by it and it would be expensive for UKPN.
To tackle the concern over costs, UKPN’s portal is intended to be self-service so that the utility needn’t serve data requests manually. The portal is only populated with data that has passed risk assessments designed to prevent breaches of the regulations, of intellectual property and privacy law, and of information kept confidential to protect the critical energy infrastructure.
Changing attitudes on data-sharing
Now it’s a matter of getting other big companies to make their data sets open to the public. The partnership’s leaders told a conference of software developers in January that doing so would help businesses cut carbon emissions. Concerted action could even offer companies visibility of emissions across their supply chains.
Sneha Ramamurthy, a Rolls-Royce software designer, told developers that the firm has been working with councils to reduce the scope-three emissions in its supply chain, partly to satisfy regulators. Industry has a huge role to play in dealing with the climate crisis, she says. Companies need to see beyond their organisational boundaries and the governance rules that define the use limits of their data. “The climate crisis is not a closed loop,” she says. “We need access to different data sets and we need to work collaboratively to do something about it.”
That also goes for companies in industries that don’t have regulations which require them to share data, says Simon Geale, executive vice-president of supply chain consultancy Proxima. “A lot of companies have realised that climate change is bigger than them. We’re seeing far more collaboration in this space than ever, but not a huge amount of data sharing.”
It’s time, then, to change that mindset. “A lot of data is hidden for competitive advantage,” Geale explains. “Supply chains are complicated. We can’t get there overnight.”