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A virtual flood of information: open data for sustainable water management

Drinking water, irrigated agriculture, fisheries, recreation, hydropower, industrial cooling, navigation and more – water serves a myriad of uses in today’s society.  Managing the trade-offs among these uses and, at the same time, ensuring that sufficient water is available to support the environment requires a steady flow of reliable and accessible data.

Today, data on water – precipitation, river flows, lake and groundwater levels, water quality, and so on – are collected by a multitude of agencies and organizations around the world, at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. These complex data sets allow researchers to track and observe water across scales and timeframes, making it possible to reconstruct and understand environmental processes such as changes in rainfall patterns or surface water temperatures. Data from satellites provide information on groundwater levels, allowing researchers to identify potential challenges for people and ecosystems. Satellite data are also beginning to be used to assess water quality across large areas, with frequent measurements from space meaning that sudden changes in water quality can be identified more quickly than when relying on on-the-ground sampling. Satellite-based data also offer a “leapfrog” technology for developing countries that lack an established ground-based monitoring network.  The AfriGEOSS program, part of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), is expected to help African agencies respond to natural disasters such as floods and forest fires by supporting the direct download of satellite data. Many government agencies in developed countries provide public access to information on water resources, such as real-time flow data available from the US Geological Survey. It is encouraging that developing countries are embracing this concept, as exemplified by the Kenya Open Data Initiative, which is intended to make key government data freely available to the public through a single online portal, and includes a water point mapping tool.

This virtual flood of information on water offers a potential for both research and evidence-based management of water resources. Collecting and analyzing data and water can also help to connect researchers and governments with individual water users, raising awareness of water management challenges and supporting transparency in water governance. This potential can only be fully realized, however, if data are available and accessible in a form that supports their further use. The full and open exchange of data is a key aspect of the Data Sharing Principles established by GEOSS. In practice, this requires careful attention to metadata (i.e., descriptive information about data that supports their use) and data interoperability (i.e., a functional level of consistency that allows systems to work together). These technical aspects, despite their complexity, may well be the easiest part of the puzzle to solve. The European Union (EU), for example, has developed rigorous guidelines to support the exchange and interoperability of geospatial data collected through INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe) and promotes data accessibility though the EU Open Data Portal. A more difficult challenge is posed by legal restrictions and data ownership, which vary across – and sometimes even within – countries. Some agencies that collect data are also tasked with partially recovering their costs through the sale of data products, meaning that only some of their data products are freely and openly available. These kind of restrictions on the application of data in water resources management constitute a real barrier for researchers, limiting knowledge-sharing and potentially hindering the development of tools for water users.

But even within the scientific community, attitudes toward data sharing vary widely. Collecting and organizing environmental monitoring data or observations can take a lot of time and effort. Researchers who have made this investment understandably want to benefit from it, or at least to have their efforts recognized. In response to this demand, scientific journals are establishing policies for data access, supporting data storage and access and even providing dedicated venues for data publication, such as Earth System Science Data. Consolidated policy recommendations for open access to research data in Europe are being developed in the project RECODE.

Open data access is an emerging paradigm, but it will require support at multiple levels to fulfil its potential to provide an effective evidence base for environmental management and policy.  In the words of GEOSS, ‘the societal benefits of Earth observations cannot be achieved without data sharing’. Data access is crucial to opening up knowledge systems and ultimately to increasing the impact of environmental science.

The environmental community must come together to overcome key hindrances around reluctance to providing open access to data, the retention of data management systems that are not interoperable and legal barriers to data sharing. The transition plan for Future Earth recognizes the critical roles of data and data access.  Recognition is an important first step, but it must be followed by implementation of open data access.

Additional resources:

Remote sensing data

Databases and management examples