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Big Data And The Environment

Big Community was invited to interview Professor Michael Robert Phillips BSc, PGCE, MSc, PhD, MIEnvSc, FRGS. Vice-Chancellor, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, during the forum on ‘Big Data Science And Applications’ at the International University of Malaya-Wales (IUMW).

He is accredited with a BSc in Civil Engineering, an MSc in Environmental Conservation Management and a PhD in Coastal Processes and Geomorphology, Professor Phillips research expertise includes coastal processes, morphological change and adaptation to climate change and sea level rise.

Among his other accolades, Prof Michael is also widely published and has organised a session on Coastal Tourism and Climate Change at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris as part of his role as a member of the Climate Change Working Group of the UNEP Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands.

“Due to my expertise, I am advising PhD research projects for overseas universities. These currently include the University of KwaZuluNatal, Durban, University of Technology, Mauritius, University of Aveiro and University of the Azores, Portugal”, he says.

His stint here in Malaysia will not be long, however he was asked to present his papers on the environmental issues which he researched during the 1990’s up till 2000. During which time, data gathering was done manually; taking measurements, writing down those measurements, twice a day, from multiple points, for years. After those data points are collected, they are tabulated and analysed before being presented to the public or the company that requested for the study.

“The numbers on the chart may seem small”, he says as he points to the power point charts where the accumulated figures of over a year are displayed, “but it is derived from a lot of data points. More than a million data points that have been collected from a year of research”, he quips.

He tells us, as society became more advanced, the interest in environmental issues grew.

“From analysing environmental data, we have the opportunity to act and change the eventual outcomes. I am very excited to see how Big Data Analytics is going to change the scale of the analysis we are able to perform in comparison”.

He said this while making a comparison of his data point collection he made of water levels by the beach on Notepad, to a more recent data collection using equipment that pinged data at almost every other second.

However with environmental data, there is a danger in misinterpreting it if the data is not collected and tabulated over a certain period of time.

He gave an example of Penarth Beach in Wales where dredging was blamed for the sea levels decreasing in a short period of time. He conducted research on the beach, that included the wind changes, tides, heat, pressure changes and currents that lasted over a year. From that research, he could prove that the dredging had little or no effect on the rise and fall of the sea levels.

Had he completed his research in less time, for instance in 3 months of tabulating the data, he points out that he would not have come to the same conclusion, simply because the data had not covered all the seasons that are felt in the environment which would also cause big fluctuations and change that can be seen only in short spurts.

Another area in which he touched on was the effects and research into pollutants.

“We are well placed to understand pollutants but not positioned to look at what could be new pollutants such as that from lithium batteries or nuclear pollutants. We don’t have the technology to derive the effects of those pollutants over time and therefore these new pollutants go undetected for years and years causing death and diseases”, he says.

He gave a number of examples of pollutants that went undetected such as the welsh milk that contained radioactive particles and the lead poisoning that came from petrol.

He says it took a very long time to discover that the milk had radioactive contaminants and that it was killing the babies who drank it. The same occurred with lead poisoning which had diverse effects on mental development.

These hidden killers, he says, need to be detected quick and the technology that Big Data Analytics offers might just be the answer. He is also very excited to see how these analytics will change the way environmentalists are able to predict the weather and save people from natural disasters and catastrophes.

“With the right data and the proper expertise, we will be able to react quickly enough to save many lives and property loss that happens during earth-quakes, tsunami’s and tornadoes”, he added.