We are experiencing a dual paradigm shift -- on the one hand climate shocks are increasing in frequency, intensity and impact. At the same time, a data revolution is unfolding and more information is being generated now than ever before, offering unprecedented opportunities to catalyse climate innovation and influence decision-making.
This creates an opportunity to use data to move from the generic to the specific, spurring us to action, making this about the present and not the future and, more critically, also bringing it into the realm of the personal.
Data to spur climate action
Data has a multiplicity of potential applications to spur climate action:
- What isn’t measured cannot be valued or acted upon: establishing baselines for environmental and economic impact
- Rapid discovery of new insights and knowledge: to help draw cross-cutting connections across sectors, for more insights
- Leverage contextual data to build groundswell of citizen action and influence policy: providing agency to local actors, improving public data collection and transparency
- Build economic arguments to inform spending: impact analysis based on observable outcomes
- Develop early warning systems for disaster management/extreme climate events: through data aggregation and intelligence
- Trigger for self-regulation, supporting the transformation towards more conscious consumerism: to drive more consumer awareness and action
- Recognise that data is key to increasing efficiency and adoption of emerging technologies and innovations: informing new opportunities, risks, enabling investments
But to make this happen impactfully, inclusively and at scale, this key input needs to be more accessible, verifiable and interoperable.
As Shloka Nath, India Climate Collaborative (ICC) points out, "In the absence of a lot of digital tools in India, about 40 percent to 80 percent of implementation time and budgets are actually spent on data collection."
Another fundamental issue around data is who creates it and how it moves. Jatin Singh from Skymet explains: ‘There is this perverse argument that data is the new oil, but data should not be treated like oil. Data is like sunlight...we need to fill the room with sunlight, and people will make better decisions. Sunlight should be free.’
The need for open data
Mala Subramaniam from Arghyam makes a persuasive argument for data as a community registry, distinct from a database and rooted in trust, verifiable, open and consent-enabled.
Shloka Nath, India Climate Collaborative (ICC) equally pertinently, emphasises the need for toolkits for translation, to move data toward decision-making. Data sitting in a silo is useless unless it can be translated into information and actionable insights.
Even where data sets exist, there is a felt need for better and easier accessibility. The idea of making data open-sourced is not new, but for many countries the challenges of doing so and the upfront investment means that much of the critical climate-related data is either not usable or can’t be trusted, or is inaccessible. Implementing open data practices needs effort and technical capabilities to design and set up the infrastructure and ensure that it is updated, curated and easy to find and use.
An example of this in practice is that of Arghyam Foundation that has been working with the Meghalaya government on the Meghalaya Community-led Landscape Management Project (MCLLMP) to strengthen community-led landscape management with collaborative use of ‘open’ data. It not only captures verified water data, but also makes it easy for people, organisations and systems to leverage.
Meanwhile, Digital Green has launched an open-source platform, FarmStack, in 2021, integrating multiple data sources and media channels to provide context-specific information to farmers on environmentally sustainable agronomic practices, enabling greater responsiveness to climate change across value chains.
OpenAQ.org and OpenStreetMap.org are other global examples of making relevant data accessible, for citizens to engage in formal and informal monitoring processes; as is Beckn - an open-source, shared data protocol democratizing data sharing and consumption across all services in the EV (electrical vehicles) ecosystem. Kochi has set up the world's first such open mobility network using Beckn open protocol.
For data to trigger large-scale behavior change, standardised assessments and benefits communication methods are needed. The Government of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE), by introducing energy labelling standards, has created a shared language and helped realign incentives for everyone.
Data is also a tool to build community resilience. Reema Nanavati from SEWA says, "Until we put data into the hands of the community—farmers, artisans, cattle breeders, dairy farmers, weavers—and find how they use that data, and then design their coping strategies - we will not build resilience."
However, the flip side of the coin is that skills and capabilities of the end users need to be developed—specifically the skill to leverage the growing digital infrastructure—in order to collect and make sense of data in large quantities, in real time. Biplab Paul from Naireeta Services adds, "Technology is there, but you need a change maker to take the technology and make the change in reality."
What next from here
Data, used fairly and in a granular way, can expand the current understanding and influence decision making. But it cannot be the sole solution for climate action.
Data can build community resilience and create urgency to act collaboratively across key actors in the ecosystem -private, government or citizen sectors. The most meaningful models of data use are those where data and community are deeply interconnected, enabling both credibility and incentives.
In India, data-driven climate action can be transformational in creating greater prosperity and economic stability—more jobs, increased energy access, sustainable transportation and health improvements—critical to development overall.
Maria Clara Pinheiro is the Director, Ashoka, South Asia. Maya Chadrasekaran is the Co Founder and Managing Director of Green Artha, a climate venture fund and innovation firm. Vidushi Kamani is the Head of the Ecosystems Programme at Green Artha.