Collective Intelligence is needed for better managing the environment

Cancun, December 10 - Imagine for a moment that a delegate from a small island state has to prepare a briefing for an international meeting on how certain species living along his state’s coastline are threatened by pollution, erosion, over-fishing and marine debris. This delegate is faced with an overwhelming task. He must identify and then wade through dozens of websites for information on the many different laws and regulations in place around the world protecting coastal endangered species from these threats. This is because there are over 70 different international environmental agreements in place worldwide to help countries manage everything from climate change and chemicals and waste, to biodiversity and African-Eurasian Migratory Birds.

With these 70 agreements come the tools, data, reports and plans that help countries to meet their commitments under each agreement or treaty. It is a dense, complex and vast body of information. But within it lies much of the information needed for the responsible, effective and efficient governance of the global environment. The challenge of course for most governments, scientists and policymakers lies not only in finding the relevant information, but in identifying the commonalities and anomalies so critical to sound decision-making.

For example, the delegate who needs to inform up to 190 countries of his state’s plans to draft a new law to protect coastal species from environmental threats has to find how existing environmental agreements on biodiversity, marine protected areas, endangered species and chemicals and waste might affect his state’s proposed law. He also needs to know how other laws in other countries are dealing with this issue. Where does he even begin to access this much information? How many sources would he have to refer to?

“The issue that we face today is not a lack of information but an over-abundance of it”, said UN Environment’s Eva Duer, who leads a global initiative to house and organise the vast body of information on environmental agreements on one platform called InforMEA.

The InforMEA portal provides access to over 60 treaties, 10,000 environmental decisions made by countries, 5,000 national reports, 500 national plans, 3,700 national contacts, and 3,000 sites.
Anne Teller, the European Union’s senior expert on biodiversity said, “We need a sophisticated and collective intelligence to responsibly manage our environment. This is a need that we are finally answering with InforMEA. But we are only starting”.

“Now we finally have the information in one place, we must start making it easier for users to compare decisions, cross-check data, and spot environmental trends. There’s a lot of work to be done but we have such a huge demand from countries to do this that there’s no question of the political will not being there to make it happen.”

Teller made these remarks at the 13th Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity currently taking place in Cancun, Mexico, where approximately 10,000 people have gathered to determine how to best conserve the planet’s biodiversity for the next four years.  

One of the most important features of InforMEA is a new law and environment ontology (LEO) that makes it far easier to search environmental treaties and documents through a database of key terms and words. LEO brings the world one step closer to ensuring that environmental terms – often the subject of lengthy debates at major international environmental meetings  - are accurately described across organizations and institutions.

InforMEA also features an e-learning tool that provides users with the opportunity to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Multilateral Environment Agreements. This resource greatly improves access to information through a collection of 21 courses on environmental law meant for academic researchers, senior NGO staff, governmental policy makers, members of the judiciary, environmental journalists and students. The e-learning platform currently has 2,800 registered users from 177 countries, of which 1200 participants have completed courses – a completion rate much higher than average for online courses.

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