Science & Technology
Digital tracking of environmental risks offers insights to humanitarian actors
By the end of this day many people will have made life-changing decisions, relying on their best guess or their instinct. Some will yield great results while others will imperil individuals, corporations and communities.
Humanitarian crises require that we make difficult choices. As they increasingly become complex, as are their impact on the environment, the choices we make must be the right ones. And to make sound, informed decisions, we need data.
Thankfully today, all those who work in the environmental field have at their fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science tools and techniques. These have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship with our planet.
For decades, the UN Environment Programme has been working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and partners such as the UN Refugee Agency, to make sense of environmental data for improved humanitarian planning.
In December last year, UN Environment with support from the UN Refugee Agency piloted an innovative tool for environmental data gathering and risk assessment, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+). The tool was deployed in the Mantapala refugee settlement in northern Zambia.
Built around existing farmland, Mantapala refugee settlement, near Nchelenge in northern Zambia, was built in 2018 for up to 20,000 people. It was designed to enable refugees to make a living while contributing to local development. The surrounding humid sub-tropical Mantapala Forest Reserve—an area characterized by rich biodiversity—includes the productive Wet Miombo Woodland.
According to the UN Refugee agency, Zambia hosts at least 41,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mantapala refugee settlement is home to around 13,000 of them.
Daily life isn’t easy. Flash floods can be common during the long rainy seasons when rainfalls are particularly heavy. In addition, less than 20 per cent of Nchelenge district’s households have access to electricity, and even when they do, it is so expensive that people prefer to use firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels.
“With pressure mounting on natural resources throughout the world, we are exploring how to support humanitarian actors in collecting, sharing and processing environmental data for better decision-making using innovative digital environmental tools such as the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) and MapX—a United Nations-backed platform—in Mantapala settlement and beyond,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX.
What makes NEAT+ so appealing is its simplicity. It is a user-friendly environmental screening tool for humanitarian contexts, which combines environmental data with site-specific questions to automatically analyse and flag priority environmental risks. The tool was developed by eight humanitarian and environmental organizations as part of the Joint Initiative, a multi-stakeholder project aimed at improving collaboration between environmental and humanitarian actors. NEAT+ supports humanitarian actors in quickly identifying issues of concern to increase the efficiency, accountability and sustainability of emergency or recovery interventions.
“NEAT+ answers the demand of a simple process to assess the sensitivity of the environment in displacement settings. It overlays environmental realities with a proposed humanitarian intervention, identifying risk and mitigation measures,” says Emilia Wahlstrom, Programme Officer, UN Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit.
NEAT+ runs on KoBo—a free, open source data collection platform—built by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative—that allows data to be collected through phone, tablet or computer. Once the data is recorded, the programme automatically generates a report in Excel, categorizing risk into high, medium and low, and providing information that can help mitigate the risk.
As a next step, NEAT+ will draw increasingly on MapX, an online, open-source, fully-customizable platform for accessing and visualizing geospatial environmental data. It offers various tools to highlight different environmental risks such as deforestation, natural hazards and flood risks. NEAT will use MapX to gather and vizualise data.
In the Mantapala settlement, the NEAT+ assessment tool was used to identify negative environmental and livelihoods impacts in the settlement, where MapX spatial data highlighted nearby areas of environmental concern.
The results showed opportunities for environmental action. Where there was risk of deforestation, alternative livelihoods and agroforestry programmes could be supported. Agricultural plots vulnerable to flood damage are undergoing modification to prevent further deforestation and to reduce flood risks.
“Developing a digital ecosystem for the environment offers the possibility to access the best available data for decision-making. Tools such as MapX and NEAT+ are critical in mitigating the effects of sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset environmental change and degradation,” says Jensen.
“Developing and applying the NEAT+ tool has showed us the added value the environmental community can bring to the frontlines of humanitarian response. By taking the time to understand the environmental context they operate in, humanitarian actors are designing programmes that are saving money, contributing to a healthy environment, and supporting the dignity, livelihoods and health of affected people. This is critical for an increasingly complex and protracted global humanitarian crisis panorama,” comments Wahlstrom.
In 2019, the same actors who developed the NEAT+ tool, the Joint Initiative partners, launched the Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect website. Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is a unique digital tool spanning the humanitarian-environment nexus and represents the first comprehensive online repository of environmental and humanitarian action tools and guidance. It is easily searchable and readily accessible, whether at the office, at home, or in the field. The content aligns with the humanitarian programme cycle with specific guidance available for humanitarian clusters and themes.
Environment and Humanitarian Action Connect is administered and updated by the United Nations Environment / Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Unit. Through the Joint Unit, UN Environment and OCHA respond as one to the environmental dimensions of emergencies. The partnership assists countries affected by disasters and crises and works to enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action. The partnership has supported almost 100 countries and conducted over 200 missions, and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Science & Technology
Communication as a realm of human enigmatic growth
In March 2023 UMEF Swiss University hosted a special guest Richard Hill, Ph.D. who is a former senior ITU staff member and who is an expert on telecommunications and Internet governance and related matters. Dr Hill holds a Ph.D. in Statistics from Harvard University and a B.S. in Mathematics from M.I.T. He has facilitated numerous complex international negotiations regarding sensitive policy matters, including Internet governance.
As a high representative of ITU he introduced us to the history of systematic communication; as a specialized agency of the United Nations, responsible for many matters related to information and communication technologies, ITU was established on 17 May 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, making it the first international organization. Prior aim was to manage the first international telegraph networks and ceaselessly foster to connect the world. Over the years, the Union’s mandate has expanded to cover the development of telephony, the radiocommunications, satellites, and most recently, the telecommunications-based information age. Along the way, ITU’s structure and activities have evolved and adapted to meet the needs of this changing mandate.
ITU’s work in radio communications began in 1906 when the first International Radiotelegraph Conference gathered 30 maritime states in Berlin to draw up the first International Radiotelegraph Convention. The Bureau of the International Telegraph Union (ITU) was designated by the Berlin Conference to act as the central administrative organ for a variety of tasks arising from the Convention. In 1927, the International Radiotelegraph Conference in Washington established the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR) to study technical and operating questions related to radio communications and to issue recommendations on them. In 1947, at the joint International Telecommunication Conference and International Radio Conference in Atlantic City, the International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB) was created to act as an administrative body to regulate the use of frequencies. In 1992, the Union’s Additional Plenipotentiary Conference in Geneva undertook a reform of ITU to give the Union greater flexibility to adapt to an increasingly complex, interactive, and competitive telecommunications environment.
The 1868 International Telegraph Conference, in Vienna, decided that ITU would operate from its own bureau in Berne, Switzerland. It began with just three members of staff. In 1948, the headquarters of ITU were moved from Berne to Geneva.
Dr. Hill today works in Geneva. He has a long professional background in Information Technology (IT) and Telecommunications. He was Department Head, IT Infrastructure Delivery and Support, at Orange Communications (a GSM operator), responsible for delivering and maintaining the real-time, fail-safe computing infrastructure for the company to support over 300 online agents and related applications such as billing. He was previously the IT Manager at the University of Geneva.
Dr. Richard Hill is currently involved in discussions on the use of and the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs), including the Internet and its governance at both the national levels (in Switzerland) and the international level.
In this respect we need to rethink, recreate, and readjust our perception on questions and comments as follows:
- AI and the influence on the humanity as whole is a big question. Context, socio-cultural, economic, and political backgrounds of historical intercorrelations, sounds as a password for enigma decryption. Can we discern progress from growth? (discontinuity, divergence etc.)
- Whilst each epoch has its defining technology determining economic, social, and political success, in today’s times we witness the omnipotent reality of cyber digital realms. They are full of wonder, puzzle, and unknowingness. What is in the future there for us, not being colonized yet with our meanings? Is there anything left?
- Consequential, ethical questions are battling the scope of academic and policy debates. Not just carbon, electronic footprint, moral and ethical dilemmas are in the core of our concerns, not just regarding ethics, but also fairness, justice, transparency, and accountability.
This is precisely the reason why historical, philosophical, and cultural contexts are important for the future safety in digital age. The environment in which contemporary challenges of e-communications are ingrained is the heir of history, philosophy, culture, and technology intertwined developments. Latest have burst into digital transformation, triggering new questions on “social contract” and common sese of the world. If the context is altered daily, social landscape is requesting new deal.
This is the reason why we have no other choice than to step back and reflect on the future of humanity.
We need to ask ourselves what defines us as human race?
What defines AI as a tool for progress and a tool for growth?
Where are common ethical algorithms and standards we ought to manage our actions and lives accordingly?
We had a strong debate, referring on above stated and other themes and issues. Since our guest has published articles on these matters, made presentations at academic conferences, submitted papers to intergovernmental organizations, and participated in multi-stakeholder discussions, the exchange of opinions was fruitful and optimistic.
Dr Hill is currently an active domain name arbitrator and an accredited mediator. As an activist, he has experience in using digital tools to affect international negotiations. He was the Western European Rapporteur for EDIFACT, responsible for the organization of the EDI standardization efforts in Europe.
Today Mr. Dill is a president of the Association for Proper Internet Governance, member of the JustNet Coalition, and was the vice-chairman, external affairs, of the Swiss chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-CH), a Swiss non-profit organization.
He contributed to the Hewlett-Packard (HP) internal manual on best practices for remote working and remote management. Prior to joining HP, he worked as a Research Statistician for the A.C. Nielsen company in Europe, a large marketing research company, and as a systems designer and consultant for a small software company in Cambridge, Mass. that specialized in applications for managing financial portfolios. Prior to that, Richard worked in software development for M.I.T. and the National Bureau of Economic Research (N.B.E.R).
 Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport is an international standard for electronic data interchange developed for the United Nations and approved and published by UNECE, the UN Economic Commission for Europe.
Science & Technology
New discoveries and advances ranging from the BRICS countries to Israel, Japan and South Korea
In the previous article we discussed new discoveries and scientific advances ranging from the United States of America to Russia, Great Britain, Germany and Finland. In this article we will look at breakthroughs in further countries.
For the first time the Hayabusa 2 probe of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) has brought back gas from asteroid 162173 Ryugu (the orbit of which is close to that of the Earth) discovered in 1999. The mission was launched on 3 December. On 27 June 2018, the probe reached the asteroid orbiting it at a distance of about 20 kilometres. After about one year and a half of measurements and surveys, the probe began its manoeuvres to approach the Earth on 13 November 2019, carrying the samples collected on Ryugu‘s surface in a capsule. On 6 December 2020, the capsule containing the samples collected on the asteroid re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere to land in the Australian desert, while the Hayabusa 2 probe continued its mission by heading into deep space to reach the 1998 KY26 asteroid.
The analysis of these gases may reveal the history of the aforementioned celestial body and help scientists further clarify the history of the solar system as it evolved. Japanese scientists detected more than twenty amino acids in the samples collected by the Hayabusa 2 probe. This is the first evidence of the existence of amino acids outside of Earth and has important implications for understanding how these vital organic molecules arrived on Earth. The analysis of the samples also showed that water on Earth may have been brought by asteroids from the outer edge of the solar system. The latest research unravels the mystery of how the ocean formed on Earth billions of years ago.
Scientists at Hokkaido University discovered that essential pyrimidine nitrogen bases (found in nucleic acids) – which make up DNA and RNA – may have been brought to Earth by carbon-rich meteorites. The research team analysed three of these meteorites and, in addition to the compounds previously detected in them, the aforementioned pyrimidine bases, such as cytosine and thymine, were found for the first time in concentrations of parts per billion. The research results show that this type of compound can be produced by a photochemical reaction and reach the Earth via meteorites, which may play an important role in the genetic function of the first manifestations of life on our planet.
Let us turn to Brazil, which is the only country in the Southern hemisphere which masters aerospace technology, with satellites, rockets, vehicles and launch sites. The Brazilian government places space activities at the top of its priority development agenda. Space research carried out by the Agência Espacial Brasileira focuses mainly on Earth observation, communication and meteorology. At the same time, Brazil is also strengthening the construction of infrastructure and the training of human resources for such studies.
The People’s Republic of China is an important aerospace cooperation partner of Brazil. The aerospace departments of China and Brazil actively implement the Cooperation Plan 2013-2022 of the National Space Administration of China and of the Brazilian Space Agency, respectively, and continue to expand into satellite exploration, manned spaceflight, including deepening studies in the field. There are plans to build a new cooperation platform in the areas of space technology, space applications, space science and ground equipment, personnel training, measurement and control support, as well as launch services.
In Brazil the China-Brazil Space Weather Joint Laboratory and the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia started a new cooperation at the beginning of April 2022. The two parties jointly established tools and equipment for scientific research and implemented data sharing. The collaboration succeeded in bringing the remote city of Santarém (Pará State) onto the map of an international sensor network for space meteorology research. It is also the latest tool in the South American magnetometer network shared between the Chinese Meridian Project and the Estudo e Monitoramento Brasileiro do Clima Espacial (EMBRACE).
In terms of international cooperation, on 25 May 2022 the BRICS countries (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) established the Joint Space Cooperation Committee, which officially opened the joint observation and data sharing of the “constellation” of remote-sensing satellites of these States. The “constellation” consists of six existing satellites from the BRICS countries. Carlos Moura, director of the Agência Espacial Brasileira, said that the creation of a virtual “constellation” of remote-sensing satellites between the space agencies of the BRICS countries and the establishment of a data-sharing mechanism will help address the challenges faced by human beings such as global climate change, major disasters and environmental protection.
In Israel, too, the promotion of lunar satellite exploration and of private aerospace innovation has achieved remarkable results. As early as 2022 Israel has increased its support for the private aerospace industry and has achieved a number of notable technological advances concerning space. On 6 January 2022, the Israel Innovation Authority announced a grant of six million dollars to eleven private aerospace companies for the development of new space technologies. The above-mentioned companies cover many technical fields such as the Internet of Things (IoT), i.e. the so-called “smart objects”. We are not just talking about computers, smartphones and tablets, but above all about the objects that surround us in our homes, at work, in cities, in our everyday lives. The IoT was born right from the idea of bringing the objects of our everyday life and experience into the digital world.
Israel, however, is also developing the space construction of small satellites, new materials, lunar oxygen production, advanced sensors and Hall thrusters. Over the next five years, IIA plans to fund USD 180 million to continue supporting the development of the private aerospace industry.
Last year the Israeli defence company Rafael launched a “constellation” of high-resolution, high-revision satellites. The image resolution is less than 30 cm. At the same time, the revision time of the ground-based target of less than 10 minutes can be achieved by drawing the orbit of the “constellation”. Pictures of the same ground-based target can be continuously taken at intervals of several minutes. Furthermore, the Israeli Ministry of Defence’s Ofek satellite programme won the Israel Defence Award 2022. In 2020 Israel had launched the Ofek-16 satellite, which is the programme’s third-generation satellite, weighs approximately 300-400 kilograms, and has an orbital altitude of 600 kilometres. All Ofek satellites are launched by the Shavit carrier rocket from the Palmachim air base in Israel, on the Mediterranean coast.
The Israeli non-profit aerospace organisation SpaceIL is preparing to launch the country’s second lunar probe in 2024 or 2025. The plan will carry multiple lunar experimental devices: the first experimental project was defined in late August 2022 and its content was to test the stability of drugs on the moon, under the responsibility of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In October 2022, the Ben-Gurion University of Negev and the Queensland Academy for Science, Mathematics and Technology (QASMT) created a research group that announced they would use a probe to conduct tests on plant growth on the Moon.
Meanwhile, France is investing in the construction of the Internet via satellite. Last year the French company Thales, together with the US company Qualcomm and the Swedish group Ericsson, planned to connect smartphones directly to satellite communications via small groups of satellites around the Earth over the next five years, in order to provide 5G coverage in areas not covered by terrestrial antennas, thus providing a service that lies between satellite telephone systems and satellite Internet providers such as Starlink. The project plans to invest eight billion euros. Thales will build the satellites; Qualcomm will supply the smartphones and Ericsson will install the terrestrial core network. This project has led to a shift from competition to cooperation between telecommunications and satellite companies in the field of networks.
In terms of space planning and investment, in September 2022 France held the International Astronautical Congress in Paris and announced that it would invest over nine billion euros in space from 2023 to 2025 for the development and expansion of the space industry.
At EU level, the European Space Agency (ESA) held a Summit last November and decided that the budget for the following three years would be EUR 16.9 billion, a 17 per cent increase, but less than the EUR 18.5 billion requested by its Director General. The funds are mainly provided by Germany, France and Italy. The new funding allows the continuation of the European programmes on Ariane 6 and Vega launchers, while enabling Europe to participate in the global competition for small launchers. The EU will also provide support for Moon and Mars probes in order to expand cooperation with the United States of America in Moon and Mars exploration.
In the Republic of Korea (South Korea) the second test launch of the domestically produced Nuri rocket successfully placed several satellites into orbit on Tuesday, marking an important step in the efforts to restart its space programme after the failure of an initial test in 2021.
At 4 pm on 21 June 2022, the Korean rocket was successfully launched from the Naro Space Center on the country’s Southern coast. A 162.5 kg satellite designed to test the rocket’s performance successfully made contact with a base station in Antarctica after entering orbit.
On 30 November 2021, the South Korean government had released the fourth basic plan for space development, proposing five main tasks relating to the development of the space industry, i.e. expanding the scope of space exploration; sending manned spacecraft; developing the South Korean space industry; overseeing and supervising space security issues; and conducting space-related research.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has clearly stated his State’s intentions to land on the Moon in 2032 and on Mars in 2045. Some South Korean academic circles, however, have called this into question, as the Republic of Korea’s talent pool, budget, and technical level in the aerospace sector cannot objectively support the expected effort.
Science & Technology
CPC: Promoting the digital Silk Road and the Long-Term Goals of 2035
At the Two Sessions in China 2023, China renewed its pledge to intensify efforts to attract and utilize foreign investments, vowing to expand market access and ensure national treatment for foreign-funded companies. We should point out that the Two Sessions are expected to be a valuable opportunity to promote the building of the “digital Silk Road”. There are many changes have been witnessed in China’s foreign investment in the past few years, so the Two Sessions meetings have planned to promote the construction of the digital Silk Road in China in the upcoming days.
The (Recommendations of the CPC Central Committee on the Formulation of the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for National Economy and Social Development and the Long-Term Goals of 2035) adhering to the implementation of expanding opening up to the outside world on a larger scale, in a broader field, and at a deeper level based on China’s market supremacy to “promote international cooperation and achieve mutual benefit and win-win”.
The Issuance of the new version of the “Encouragement List of foreign investments” is an important measure that expands the scope of foreign investment and helps raise foreign investment confidence. Through the guidance of the “encouragement list of foreign investments” can flow into areas that meet China’s need for high-quality development, and promote the formation of a new development pattern in which domestic circulation is the main ingredient and domestic and foreign dual circulation reinforce each other. This indicated China’s progress towards attracting foreign investment to areas of high-quality development, and meeting the domestic demand for the establishment of the new order of an open economy at a higher level.
After the amendments to the Law on Encouragement and Attraction of Foreign Investment in China, the total number of “China Foreign Investment Encouragement List” has increased to 1,235. We find that these amendments embody the demands of improving industries, upgrading them, and harmonious development between regions, and encourage foreign funds to flow into the advanced manufacturing sector and the modern service industry, and encourage foreign funds to flow into western and central China. Among the newly added investment fields, there are advanced manufacturing fields such as (artificial intelligence and digital technology), in addition to areas related to people’s livelihood such as modern logistics and information services.
Preferential policies are what foreign investors are most interested in. According to the “China Foreign Investment Encouragement List”, the foreign-funded enterprises can invest in more areas, as well as enjoy a series of preferential policies.
The Issuance of the “China Investment Encouragement List” is conducive to stabilizing the expectations and confidence of foreign investors, and is conducive to the stabilization of foreign trade and foreign investment. At the same time, it will give continuity and stability to the “policy of reassurance” for foreign-invested enterprises operating inside China.
The meetings of the two sessions also emphasized the importance of the digital silk road in strengthening China’s strength. Since the announcement of the establishment of the Digital Silk Road in 2017, the leaders of the Communist Party of China have worked to enhance cooperation with countries along the Belt and Road Initiative in the field of technology, including sectors (digital economy, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things).
Now, Huawei Chinese Company, which controls about 30% of the global communications infrastructure market, was able to obtain 91 contracts from different cities around the world to develop 5G networks.
Alibaba Cloud, affiliated to the Chinese e-commerce giant company, is also one of the most active companies within the Digital Silk Road. The company works with many countries in digital technology investments and artificial intelligence and in several related fields, including providing solutions for smart cities.
Today, China wants to employ the rapidly growing digital economy and reap its benefits, especially as this economy has the ability to empower disadvantaged regions and their populations in a way that was impossible in the past. Chinese digital trading platforms or social networks such as “Taobao”, “JD.com” and “WeChat” have changed the way companies operate in these countries, bringing new opportunities and innovations, and this has had a noticeable positive impact on some of the poorest communities, which were Previously besieged due to its geographical isolation.
The meetings of the two sessions 2023 affirmed the importance of the “digital economy” and the companies operating within it have become a powerful driving force behind reducing rural poverty in China. At the 2015 G-20 Hangzhou Summit, after an impassioned speech by Chinese President “Xi Jinping”, members agreed that the digital economy can have great potential for development outcomes. The ambition is that there can be synergy between the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially when we combine the digitization of the Silk Road with the Sustainable Development Goals. During the 2016 World Internet Summit, nine countries launched an initiative to develop cooperation in the field of digital economy among countries along the Silk Road, and the Chinese Road has acquired a digital dimension since then.
To this day, the economic cooperation based on information and communication technology and the application of other new technologies in the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative is called the “Digital Silk Road” to achieve development goals. In this context, the Secretary-General of the Organization, António Guterres, said at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation: “While the Belt and Road Initiative and the 2030 Agenda differ in nature and scope, sustainable development is the overarching goal. Both seek to create opportunities, global public goods, and win-win cooperation”. Both aim to deepen connectivity across countries and regions: connectivity in infrastructure, trade, finance, policy, and perhaps most of all, people-to-people”.
The meetings of the two sessions this year 2023 stressed the need for the Digital Silk Road to be compatible with the ambitious national goals of the Chinese authorities such as “Made in China 2025” and “China Standards 2035.” These initiatives aim to enhance domestic technological innovation and production and transaction capabilities in China, and at the same time. These goals are part of a comprehensive vision of the Chinese government to enhance its presence in the world of technology and achieve greater independence in the global digital system. The meetings of the two sessions 2023 stressed the need to reduce the dependence of the Chinese state on other technology leaders, especially the United States, Japan and selected European countries.
In Conclusion, China’s Digital Belt initiative helps many Chinese tech giants and smaller players in the sector boost their domestic sales and relationships and gain a foothold in overseas markets for digital technology, with the help and facilitation of the Chinese government.
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