White House Releases 150 Data Sets to Fight Climate Change

The Obama administration, Google, Microsoft and others announce a lineup of data projects and commitments in support of the federal Climate Data Initiative.

by / April 8, 2015
Google Earth Outreach Program Manager Allison Lieber describes three data-based global warming projects that are part of Google's commitment to the White House Climate Data Initiative. The White House

To support the president’s Climate Data Initiative, the White House revealed on Tuesday, April 7, a series of data projects and partnerships that includes more than 150 new open data sets, as well as commitments from Google, Microsoft and others to cultivate climate analysis.

The undertakings were released at a White House climate and health conference where John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, pressed the need for greater data to compel decreases to greenhouse emissions.

“This is a science-based administration, a fact-based administration, and our climate policies have to be based on fact, have to be based on data, and we want to make those data available to everybody,” Holdren said.

The data initiative touches multiple agencies — including NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency — and is part of the White House proclamation of a new National Public Health Week, from April 6 to April 12, to spur national health solutions and awareness.

The 150-plus data sets are all connected to health, and are among the 560 climate-related data sets available on Data.gov, the U.S. government’s open data portal. Accompanying the release, the Department of Health and Human Services added a Health Care Facilities Toolkit on Toolkit.climate.gov, a site that delivers climate resilience techniques, strategies, case studies and tools for organizations attempting climate change initiatives.

Holdren was followed by White House Chief Data Scientist D.J. Patil, who moderated a tech industry panel with representatives from Google, Microsoft and GIS mapping software company Esri.

Google Earth Outreach Program Manager Allison Lieber confirmed that Google will continue to provide assistance with 10 million hours for high-performance computing for climate data projects — down from 50 million in 2014 — and the company will likewise provide climate data hosting on Google Earth.

“The goal of this project is to bring the science out of laboratories and into operational use by building apps that make it easily understandable to program managers and ministries of health and people on the ground,” Lieber said.

Out of Google’s donation, the Mountain View, Calif., company highlighted three of its projects that would take advantage of the support. The first involved near-real-time disease risk maps for scientists attempting early warning for climate change related diseases — like malaria and dengue fever. The second was a project led by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Randy Sargent, who has used imagery from the NASA’s VIIRS Satellite to create mapping animations of fires and flaring due to oil and gas — hydraulic fracturing a major contributor in the U.S. Third, Lieber pointed to a 2015 pilot study that harnesses Google’s fleet of Google Street View cars to measure methane emissions and natural gas leaks in select U.S. cities.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft similarly committed to a potentially revolutionary experiment in early disease detection. A study is under way to test whether drones can be deployed as field biologists to collect and analyze mosquito samplings. If successful, Microsoft Researcher Ethan Jackson said the technique had potential to identify likely outbreaks early and alert officials for immediate and long-term planning.

Jackson said costs to dispatch field biologist to remote areas are extremely prohibitive, and it’s unknown how cost effective drone-deployed mosquito collection and analysis devices will be.

The question, he said, will be, “can we get new data sets, and when we get them, how do we crunch them in new ways?”

As Obama nears the end of his final term, Holdren said the administrations would continue to place a heavy focus and resources toward the White House’s Climate Data Initiative, launched last year.

On March 19, Obama made an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in federal agencies by an average of 40 percent, compared to 2008 levels, and to increase renewable electricity sources by 30 percent. Despite partisan criticism against his interpretation and use of executive authority, Obama said his actions on global warming are justified in light of potential perils to human health.

“Climate change is no longer a distant threat. Its effects are felt today, and its costs can be measured in human lives." Obama said in his National Public Health Week proclamation. "Every person, every community, and every nation has a duty to protect the health of all our children and grandchildren, and my administration is committed to leading this effort."

Elaborating on the administration’s stance, Holdren emphasized dangers stemming from higher climates extended far beyond average air temperatures and sea level rise. Greater emissions, he warned, will be problematic for asthmatics — as more allergens enter the air, increase smog-related illnesses, and ail those susceptible to heat stress and respiratory diseases.

“We know that the kinds of changes we’ve seen are putting vulnerable people at risk: the very old and the very young,” Holdren said.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.