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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
The magnitude and pace of global change demands rapid assessment of the state of our planet and the life that thrives on it. As governments, business, and financial institutions are increasingly committing to goals for sustainable development, understanding how science can improve decisions and their impacts on the planet is imperative to meeting those commitments. That’s why WWF, NASA, NOAA and USGS have formed a new collaboration that studies the role of information in decision-making to improve both.
With the rapidly increasing development of satellite and other technologies, scientists are now able to gather increasingly sophisticated and detailed information about how the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological (and many aspects of societal) systems behave. This information, called Earth Observations (EO), can provide real-time, globally available, and publicly accessible information for decision-makers to track current and future natural impacts and prioritize which actions to take for their localities. For example, conservation programs are using satellite data to evaluate program impacts on biodiversity, regulators are using airborne observations of methane emissions to identify point sources, land managers and emergency services are increasingly turning to EO-based wildfire forecasts to plan interventions and evacuations, and many other uses are proliferating. Importantly, EO can also democratize knowledge by providing people with direct access to powerful tools and information about the challenges their communities may face—knowledge that can be used to strengthen their influence and amplify their voice around decision-making in the places they live.
Yet, questions remain about how EO is being used and how we can better leverage the full potential of this information to support a more sustainable and just future.
While EO data can be used to create such beneficial outcomes, we need to build better understanding to the extent of which they are, and how to improve them if they aren’t. Teaming up with NASA, NOAA, and USGS, WWF is forming a transdisciplinary network of academic, NGO and agency scientists and practitioners, integrating Earth sciences, social sciences, and data sciences. Researchers in this growing network will assess how EO is currently used to benefit society, and how using it can change perceptions, behaviors, and decisions, as well as their resulting social and ecological outcomes. Ultimately, these insights can be used to build new understanding of the role that EO can play in decision-making and guide future technological development of EO toward greater utility.
WWF is already heavily involved in the translation of EO to delivering societal benefits, as a direct user of EO products in its conservation planning and impact monitoring, as an innovator of new EO applications to solve urgent sustainability problems, and as a convener of different audiences who care about planetary stewardship. As core providers of satellite data in the United States, NASA, NOAA and USGS have long funded individual projects to support the development and use of EO; they are now looking for opportunities to scale beyond the individual project level, asking where EO has the greatest potential for rapid adoption and impact. At the same time, all three agencies recognize the importance of understanding how EO can be used as a tool for social and environmental justice, to highlight the inequitable share of challenges faced by marginalized, vulnerable, and disadvantaged communities. WWF’s expertise, spanning engagement in international policy forums to working with local communities around the world puts us in the unique position to address these challenges.
The collaborative will be developing new ways of valuing EO and their contributions to society. Different evaluation methods and different types of values will be explored, drawing from economics, machine learning, behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, and more. Applying these methods in real world decisions, the network will evaluate the societal benefits of EO in contexts such as conservation, agriculture, water resources, disasters, climate resilience, health, and social and environmental justice. Along with highlighting the benefits of EO information, researchers will characterize the use of EO in complex decision-making processes, identify common barriers, gaps, and other challenges in the translation of EO to decision-relevant and actionable information, and make recommendations for improving the utility of and expanding the diversity of people who use EO in the future. A key piece of this evaluation will focus on how the decision-making process itself can transform through the use of EO, towards more transparent, democratic, and inclusive deliberation. These evaluation projects will strengthen collaborations between Earth scientists, social scientists, and decision-makers, grow the community of practice for valuing EO, and communicate that value and its potential for improvement to policy-makers and funders investing in the advancement of EO. The insights gained through this new program of work on valuing EO will catalyze the next generation of satellite information to better support society’s most pressing decisions for people and the planet.