Environmental Monitoring: A Digital Approach



The relationship between air & water pollution and general population health has been well understood for decades. As far back as the 1940s1, Western countries have had an awareness of emissions, and the consequences of mismanaging environmental quality in close proximity to civilians.

Between 1970 and 2000, many countries established legislation and standards around the reporting of pollutions data2. While early implementations were limited in scope and in complexity, they were not an endpoint. Initial lists of contaminants were expanded upon, and in many industries, reporting became a mandatory aspect of commercial operations10, 11.

As technology has continued to evolve, two things have become true:

  • The measurement and communication equipment required to measure and share environmental information, are more readily available than they have ever been; and
  • Thanks to advances like the internet, the expectation for interested parties to be able to view this data on-demand, has never been higher.

Sharing the data by using a digital platform, opens the door to many potential benefits for both the organisations collecting the data, and the wider public.

While some organisations see the compulsory reporting of environmental data as a burden, there are opportunities available for those who view it with a different lens.

Risk Mitigation

Under certain circumstances, environmental agencies are able to negotiate settlements3 with liable parties, when transgressions occur4. A proven track record of good compliance, the timeliness in reporting the occurrence of an incident, the practical measures put in place to prevent or minimise incidents, and the degree of contrition demonstrated by an offender, may all be minimising factors in the determination of an appropriate punishment3.

Digital solutions, including platforms like gHost, offer the ability to proactively monitor emissions and pollutant data collected in real-time, and to immediately alert operators or management when warning or critical thresholds are breached. Such systems are a clear signal to agencies that regulatory compliance is taken seriously, rather than being treated as an afterthought.

Operational Efficiency

Large organisations are familiar with the practice of making data-driven operational decisions. Assets are often monitored closely, and raw performance compared to manufacturer or historical baselines so that anomalies can be investigated before they develop into larger issues. Platforms like gHost support this ‘isolated’ approach to asset monitoring – but often, performance is not just about the asset itself, but also a result of the conditions that the asset operates under. It may be a second piece of equipment, a weather event, or an environmental result of something else happening at an operational site, but rarely is performance relative to just an asset’s rated load.

A recent review of the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act5, tasked with identifying changes to the act which might be needed to support sustainable development practices, specifically noted a lack of technological adoption in various areas of environmental development.

The technologies to analyse and gain insights from diverse and very large datasets are not broadly used, but these insights are essential to develop and refine predictive models.

If environmental factors contribute to the performance of an asset, and the technologies to measure and account for those factors are available, then why are they not used when modelling operational performance?

In most cases, the answer is a lack of resources. The links between two different data sets are not immediately obvious or quantifiable. There is a misconception that combining data from multiple sources can only be an expensive exercise, so justifying time and money to understand them is seen as a difficult case to make. The reality is actually the opposite; in fact, technology platforms like gHost are widely used throughout other industries to shine a light on otherwise hidden connections. As the same report states, the use of technological prowess for environmental purposes, lags when compared to other sectors.

This contrasts to other areas of national policy, such as the economy and health, where predictive modelling is a mainstream and widespread tool used to inform decision-making.

Many of the parties required to disclose data relating to their environmental impacts, do so by providing a bare minimum of information, and at the lowest frequency allowed under their license. Compared to a competitor who collects and stores the data year-round, they are far less likely to identify hidden trends – time of day, seasonal, or a result of some other factor – and be able to modify their operational regimes to best account for them.

Opportunity for Innovation

The practice of data sharing doesn’t just enable short-term operational efficiencies; it also fosters an environment of innovation, leading to the discovery of new and long-term opportunities for improvement. As the aforementioned review of the Australian EPBC Act describes:

New technologies and increased computing power are fundamentally shifting the questions that environmental science can address using existing data sources.

Applications like Global Forest Watch8 are a shining example of innovation led by the sharing of digital information. The program began in 1997 with 4 countries supplying regular and consistent reports about the state of their rainforests. Almost a decade later, and for six years, the tool started developing visual mapping elements. Now, after another decade, not only is Global Forest Watch used as a communal resource for monitoring deforestation; but businesses are leveraging it as a way of ensuring their operations are sustainable, managing the risks in their supply chains to ensure their future survival.

Innovation is not limited to commercial stakeholders, either. Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to improve the ability of local and state governments, to understand the environmental impacts of commercial activities in their communities. These attempts have stalled for a variety of reasons.

The current barriers to data sharing between [state] governments are largely cultural and legal, complicated by a lack of structured approaches and technical systems that ‘talk to each other’.

There is no technical reason for information systems to not incorporate an ability to ‘talk to each other’; only commercial reasons, imposed by software developers.

Not every platform arbitrarily imposes these restrictions. At gHost, we are huge advocates for making data sets as accessible as possible. gHost supports both the sending and retrieval of data using industry-standard RESTful APIs, and allows users to easily download any of their organisation’s data into a standard CSV format. gHost also offers advanced custom reporting, enabling data tables to be pre-configured and then made downloadable for any length of time. Implementing these standards is not only user-friendly, but allows other platforms to talk directly to gHost; or even two gHost customers, to talk to each other.

Businesses don’t always know what is coming in the next decade; but by having tools in place early, and promoting an environment of data maturity, they can be ready to capitalise on new opportunities for innovation.

Building Community Goodwill

While there are dozens of industries working with environmentally hazardous materials, a subset deal with particularly challenging public perceptions and a greater scrutiny into their ongoing operations. Mining, oil and gas companies in particular, are tasked with providing some of the most important products to the world, balancing social pressures in the process.

There is little doubt within the sector that productive community relations contribute to smooth operations – leading, in turn, to business success.7

In an age where social media is ubiquitous, the ease at which companies can be “named and shamed” – and sustain great reputational damage in the process – is far greater than the ease at which they are able to build and maintain strong relationships with the communities they reside in.

One way to demonstrate a strong commitment to the community, is to be sincere in interacting with stakeholders, and to act in good faith. Already, stakeholders are becoming more sceptical of what the true intentions behind community engagement, may be; one-way dialog through channels like social media, has proven to be minimally-effective at building this relationship9. Volunteering operational data relating to environmental impacts to stakeholders, in both an accurate and timely manner, is one of the clearest indications possible that an organisation considers its social license to operate, more important than the pursuit of profit.

Using multiple data sets to identify operational efficiencies – described earlier as a key opportunity for forward-thinking organisations – while also being transparent in sharing environmental data with the immediate community, does raise potential for a poorly-designed system to expose commercial information to various stakeholder groups, inappropriately. Well-engineered platforms – including gHost – handle this scenario by building solutions around the idea of granular permissions. Every component of the gHost solution is configurable with a different set of access controls. This means that certain users can be blocked from seeing anything from an individual asset’s data, through to an entire web dashboard, depending on the scenario. For organisations, being transparent whilst also being innovative, doesn’t require mutually-exclusive tools – just the right ones.

Putting it all together

While the benefits of adopting an advanced platform to manage environmental data – aside from simple legal and regulatory compliance – are clear to understand, the technical challenges have also been hypothesised, and then observed many times over.

Even as the instrumentation to measure pollutants and emissions has proliferated, off-the-shelf solutions to store the data, to make sense of it, and to integrate with other systems, have remained difficult to find. Organisations who have historically viewed their environmental responsibilities as an opportunity, rather than a burden, have had to make a conscious decision to invest in building their own solutions.

For those organisations who do not have the same resources at their disposal, the potential benefits that could be gained by rolling out more sophisticated environmental monitoring systems, are just as valuable. However, the lack of support for standard data formats, misconceptions around the investment required to implement a solution, lack of in-house expertise, and uncertainty around segregating permissions to view data, have all been seen as significant obstacles.

The result is that many businesses who have environmental obligations, are unable to combine and analyse their data sets to become more efficient, and more innovative; and the immediate communities are stopped from being able to monitor what is happening in their surroundings.

Platforms like gHost not only offer solutions to these problems; they’re fast to deploy, affordable, and don’t require in-house teams for support and maintainence. The technology to support organisations who take their environmental responsibility seriously, is ready – all that’s needed, is for them to take advantage.

Reference List

  1. Jacobs, E. T., Burgess, J. L., & Abbott, M. B. (2018, April). “The Donora Smog Revisited: 70 Years After the Event That Inspired the Clean Air Act.” American Journal of Public Health, 108(Suppl 2), S85–S88. Link
  2. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). History of Air Pollution. Link
  3. Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) South Australia. (2019). Information on the Civil Penalty System. Link (Page 3).
  4. Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) South Australia. (n.d.). Completed Prosecutions and Civil Penalties. Link
  5. EPBC Act Review. (n.d.). Right Information, Not Available: Informing Decisions Made under EPBC Act. Link
  6. EPBC Act Review. (n.d.). There is No Clear Authoritative Source of Environmental Data and Information. Link
  7. Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. (2019). Local Planning for Sustainable Development – Community Engagement and Development Handbook. Link
  8. Global Forest Watch. (n.d.). About GFW. Link
  9. Abitbol, A. et al. (2019). Does Oil and Goodwill Mix? Examining the Oil and Gas Industry’s Impact on Stakeholder Engagement on Facebook. Link
  10. National Pollutant Inventory (NPI). (n.d.). Interpretive Guide. Link
  11. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). Air Data – Basic Information. Link


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