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Digital Transformation in Government Insight #68:
Using data for cleaner cities

Google’s new Environmental Insights Explorer has the power to help cities and governments explore their greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change.

Salsa Digital 16 October 2018

Environmental Insights Explorer

Google is trialling a new tool that monitors climate change — Environmental Insights Explorer. The trial is currently being run across five cities, including Melbourne. The other locations are Buenos Aires (Argentina), Victoria (Canada), Mountain View (US) and Pittsburgh (US).

The goal

The goal is simple — to harness the power of technology to help cities (and governments) monitor and reduce their greenhouse emissions. The first step towards positive change is to audit the area/city to get an idea of the overall levels of greenhouse emissions. The Environmental Insights Explorer makes this easy for cities/governments to do.

How it works

Firstly, the city’s boundaries are defined, using the city’s official boundaries within Google Maps.

Next, the Environmental Insights Explorer uses a variety of data and calculations to provide:

  • An estimate of the building emissions

  • An estimate of the transportation emissions

  • An estimate of the rooftop solar potential

  • 20-year climate projections (projected average temperature and precipitation) based on the emission data

The tool covers emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride.

The calculations

The estimate for building emissions is calculated using Google’s proprietary data, which estimates floor space and assigns a building ‘type’ (e.g. apartment block, office building, etc.). This data is then combined with region-specific information from CURB, the Climate Action for Urban Sustainability tool, to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions for all the buildings in the city boundaries.

The estimate for transport emissions also uses Google data to estimate the number of kilometres travelled within the city over a period of time. This information is then combined with region-specific data from CURB (e.g. the types of vehicles) to calculate total emissions.

The rooftop solar potential uses Google’s Project Sunroof to estimate solar savings. Project Sunroof uses Google Earth to analyse roof shapes and local weather patterns to estimate the solar potential.

Finally, the climate projections are calculated using models that factor in future greenhouse gas concentrations. Specifically, the climate projections use Google’s Earth Engine to compile the future weather values from NASA’s Earth Exchange Global Daily Downscaled Projections (NEX-GDDP) datasets.

You can read more about the calculations for each of these areas in the methodology section of the Environmental Insights Explorer website.

Salsa Digital’s take

Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer is a great tool that harnesses the power of technology and data for social (and environmental) good. While it’s in its early days (trial stage) we think it will be a useful tool for government at all levels (city/local councils, state/territory and federal) to get an idea of their current emissions, how they can be offset by solar power and how different areas are tracking for climate change. Of course, we’d prefer it if this great tool used open data (we do love open everything (OpenX)), but we love the fact that the proprietary data is being used for a free (open) tool!

If you haven’t already done it, go to Environmental Insights Explorer and select a city to explore the data. Hopefully this data-driven tool will be used by governments to drive change and transform our cities.

And if you’re interested in looking at the environmental performance of specific buildings you can also check out the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) website (a recent Salsa project — read our NABERS case study for more information).

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