A tech effort seeks to make climate change up close and personal

White House, tech firms to cooperate on turning environmental data into easy-to-use tools

WASHINGTON -- Google, Intel, Microsoft, the White House and others believe more Americans would take action on climate change if its affects could be visualized up close, down to its impact house by house.

These companies, including mapping software firm Esri, are making expertise and computing resources available for this effort, and the U.S is committing to releasing more environmental data.

One end result, said Rebecca Moore, founder of the Google Earth Engine, will be high-resolution tools that can show homeowners the impact of rising waters on their property.

"When you can make that connect between a climate event and your home it can change the game," said Moore, speaking at a White House event this week. "This is one of the things that we're hoping to do."

The effort, called the Climate Data Initiative, is an expansion of what the government has already been doing. In 2008, for instance, the U.S. opened decades of Landsat satellite images, which had never been online, to public use.

Google has used satellite data to create cloud-free images of the planet and is working with researchers to create visualizations showing how the planet is changing. At Global Forest Watch, for instance, users can see data visualizations of the impact of deforestation year by year.

Moore said the goal is to help make the public understand and prepare for the risks of climate change, and to make the tools for doing so as simple to use and "as accessible as using Google maps to give driving directions."

"Now that probably sounds crazy, but that's what we want to try to do," Moore said.

As part of this effort, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently announced plans to make all the environmental data it collects available to the public.

Only about 10% of its data is now available, and the agency is seeking private sector help to find a way to make this data accessible without having to pay cloud services costs.

A majority of Americans, two out of three, believe global warming is happening, according to a study released late last year by Yale University and George Mason University. Of that number, 47% believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities. (Complete study PDF).

"The public believes that climate change is real, but they put it extremely low priority," said Moore, "so they know, but they don't'care. But I think with tools like this, we hope to help people internalize the risk and care," she said.

This article, Tech effort seeks to make climate change up close and personal, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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