people sitting down at computers


Access to information on the state of the environment through digital platforms will be a powerful enabler of citizen participation and development of local solutions over the next decade in Victoria. As Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, I see championing the application of big data and analytics as mission critical. Better use of data and analytics will be a major enabler for environmental agencies to improve the efficacy of environmental understanding and management. Being able to assess trends and use emerging information in real time and ways we never have been able to before in ‘business as usual’ environmental management, is the future. With data becoming easier and much less costly to obtain, the challenge will be in the sense-making - not the gathering - of data.

Access to powerful, multi-layered data in real time will improve the fundamentals of environmental management, regulation and reporting. The recommendations of the independent inquiry into Victoria’s EPA in 2015-16, headed by Penny Armytage attracted strong support by the Victorian government and set out a pathway to reform which I believe is a once in a generation opportunity to improve the science and understanding of Victoria’s environment.

I am pleased to be collaborating with the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist Andrea Hinwood as they implement these reforms [such as those highlighted by recommendations 6.3 and 7.2 of the Inquiry], to improve EPA’s air and monitoring networks and better coordinate environmental monitoring and reporting across Victoria including:

  1. statewide environmental monitoring
  2. a statewide spatial data system
  3. statewide reporting of health, environmental and liveability outcomes. 

We know that we need to harness and increase the reach and capacity of Victoria’s data analytics capabilities for the environment. I’m interested also in how we build on existing capabilities and infrastructure. For example, we already have the State Control Centre (SCC) in East Melbourne for Victoria’s emergency management sector. As well as state level intelligence we also have key federal agencies such as the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia providing data and insights on which to build our operating model.

We need to keep thinking about the tools government needs over the next decade and whether we can leverage the investments already made. Data, data analytics, better use of real-time information, better involvement of citizens (through citizen science). That is why, following the efficacy of the approach taken through Victoria’s emergency management sector and most obviously through the SCC (Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley calls it a “joined up approach”), it is time to think about establishing an environmental data centre for Victoria to collate and analyse key environmental data including water and air quality and monitoring the impacts of climate change. It is about bringing information together in ways that has never been possible in Victoria.

Can the way that Emergency Management Victoria and the emergency management sector through the SCC, use data - in terms of planning, logistics, intelligence and mapping for emergencies - be extended to environmental management and reporting?

Recent conversations with Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley confirm that he agrees that there is potential to extend the digital resources that underpin the joined up, collaborative approach being fostered in emergency management, to broader environmental management and protection operations. Craig reinforced how information from these data centres means better, evidence based decision-making for both emergency managers and community, leading to better community outcomes. Being able to access previously incalculable amounts of integrated data in real time rather than after the fact means that we are now better able to predict and prepare for events such as thunderstorm asthma. 

My vision for environmental reporting is that a broad range of environmental data - from a multitude of sources including citizen scientists, monitors and sensors - will be presented spatially and available to anyone, anywhere, at any time on smart phones and other devices. I’m confident that steady progress will be made to deliver this big vision over the next decade. (In my next Linkedin article, I will talk about a platform already in use in Victoria that has great scope to expand.)

In the not too distant future, I have no doubt that our environmental managers and regulators will be more heavily supported by digital technologies and data analysts, they will partner with the community to collect and interpret information from areas of risk in particular, in real or near real time.

Why do we need to harness the power of big data?