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Digital tracking of environmental risks offers insights to humanitarian actors

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photo: UN Environment

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.

UN Environment

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Science & Technology

Technologies That Are The Future

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Innovation is the introduction of something new. As we are in this progressing age, one can observe changes in the surroundings within seconds. To cater for this, technological advancements and new innovations with better features are the need of the hour. Futurists of the 1950s or so predicted that by 2000s, we will have flying cars and airborne robots. While the forecasters had their timing wrong, but their foresighted technology was right. Today we are at the brink of manufacturing self-driving cars and robot assistants.

Among these, another important innovation that will go mainstream is the ‘Voice Assistants’. In about four to five years, every home is expected to have a voice assistant like Amazon Echo or Apple Homepod. This is all thanks to the power of artificial intelligence that we are able to develop something like this. Voice assistants are making a vital change in markets all around the world and some scientists believe that in the near future, people will be communicating through voice rather than text. This will save time which can be used in completing other tasks.

Another emerging technology is the technique of ‘Reversing Paralysis’. Researchers have begun using brain-reading technology which helps the people with paralysis to move their limbs again. This is done by placing an electronic implant in the brain which is connected to electrical stimulators located on the body to create a ‘neural bypass’. Although the progress in implementing this technology is slow but this technology is also being tested for people with other diseases like arthritis. These innovations with new advances would allow patients to regain control of their bodies.

The wait for ‘Quantum Computers’ is ending soon. A computer that can accelerate pharmaceutical research, compute equations that are hard to fathom right now or rewrite encryptions. Quantum computers have more qubits, the basic unit of quantum information. Qubits need ideal conditions to function properly, but new technology reduces the computational capability needed to correct errors caused by physical intrusions. These computers will be in the commercial market for common use by anyone in a few years.

The next on list are the ‘Hot Solar Cells’. Solar panels are more efficient today than their previous versions, but they still absorb only a fraction of sunlight. To solve this problem, hot solar cells are introduced which convert the sunlight into heat and then back to light. So, what happens is an ‘absorber-emitter’ absorbs the sunlight then converts it to heat and funnels it to solar cells. This system could even allow energy to be stored for later use. This system could deliver continuous power even when the sun is not shining.

‘Botnets’ is the real game changer in the list. As we are living in the age of smart phones, laptops, internet, media, etc. we do not entirely realize the importance of cyberattacks. Botnets are centralized systems that gain control of internet connected devices to launch cyberattacks. The situation is getting worse day by day with so many devices that have little to no cybersecurity measures. Botnets can evade spam filters, create click fraud, and launch denial-of-service attacks. Once a botnet is spotted, its command and control center can be attacked and rendered ineffective. In the coming years, botnet trends favor the attacker, and more botnet attacks will be coming for internet users.

A world where genetic diseases like Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis are defeated is something, we all wish for. Well, thanks to ‘Crispr’, genetic diseases may be eliminated. CRISPR Cas-9 is an abbreviation for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’. It is a gene-splicing technology which is capable of finding and removing mutated sections of DNA. Once it is removed, crispr can replace the mutated ones with non-mutated variants. In conclusion, crispr has the ability to permanently remove certain types of genetic diseases from blood lines. It is already being used to eliminate cancer cells in some patients and may as well be able to cure genetically caused blindness as well in the near future.

Practice makes a man perfect but you never know the advancements in the technology might make the robots perfect too. ‘Reinforcement Learning’ is a new technique which helps artificial intelligence (AI) to solve problems it has never seen before. This concepts is connected with a large neural network which is trained to recognize patterns in data. The computer learns which information is correct and which is not and continuously improves itself. A computer using this technology can beat one of the best players in the world. Reinforcement learning might be moving towards its most vital tests soon with its use in self-driving cars and other technologies.

Another new technology in the market is the ‘Gene Therapy’. It is for hereditary diseases and is available in Europe market and will soon be launched in the United States. The success of these gene therapies increased phenomenally when scientists started to use viruses that are more efficient at transporting new genetic materials. Gene therapies can even treat the diseases which involve multiple genes. This kind of treatment might seem rare now but will be more common in the blink of an eye.

At one point last year, Bitcoin was worth more than $19,000 per coin but recently the value of cryptocurrency has decreased still a single coin is worth thousands of dollars. Cryptocurrency has stirred up controversy around the world but it is steadily becoming mainstream. Platforms like TrustToken and HybridBlock are poised to connect the global trading power of blockchains with real world assetd and are designed to give crypto enthusiasts greater access to silo trading markets which help to expand the industry to a new wave of crypto enthusiasts. As a result, sellers can make illiquid assets liquid, and buyers can have control of a vast portfolio of assets. By giving access to mobile friendly products like easy to use applications, these platforms are providing the market with a new form of crypto education and the tools to execute crypto trades.

Last but not the least on the list is the ‘Artificial Intelligence and Automation’. Some of the world’s most famous brands are majorly turning to automation in order to serve their customers better and become more affordable by reducing the costs. Big box retailers utilize automated warehouses to sort and ship products, while social media networks use automation to moderate comments and credit card companies use automation to detect fraud and theft. The implications here are massive because a new artificial intelligence economy incorporating the decentralized blockchain AI, can change the way businesses operate and run around the world.

Indeed, it is just a matter of time before everything goes to the market. We are moving to a time where everything is just a click away. New innovations are coming daily, changes are being made within minutes. In fact, as we speak, we might be unaware but there might be some company in the world working at this hour to bring a change to your smartphone but there is nothing we can do about it. We just have to hang in there and go with the flow.

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Science & Technology

What is a ‘vaccine passport’ and will you need one the next time you travel?

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An Arab-Israeli woman shows her COVID-19 card which shows she has been vaccinated against the virus. Mohamed Yassin

Is the idea of a vaccine passport entirely new?

The concept of a passport to allow for cross border travel is something that we’ve been working on with the Common Trust Network for many months. The focus has been first on diagnostics. That’s where we worked with an organization called “The Commons Project” to develop the “Common Trust Framework”. This is a set of registries of trusted data sources, a registry of labs accredited to run tests and a registry of up-to-date border crossing regulations.

The set of registries can be used to generate certificates of compliance to prevailing border-crossing regulations as defined by governments. There are different tools to generate the certificates, and the diversity of their authentication solutions and the way they protect data privacy is quite remarkable.

We at the Forum have no preference when it comes to who is running the certification algorithm, we simply want to promote a unique set of registries to avoid unnecessary replication efforts. This is where we support the Common Trust Framework. For instance, the Common Pass is one authentication solution – but there are others, for example developed by Abbott, AOK, SICPA (Certus), IBM and others.

How does the system work and how could it be applied to vaccines?

The Common Trust Network, supported by the Forum, is combining the set of registries that are going to enrol all participating labs. Separately from that, it provides an up-to-date database of all prevailing border entry rules (which fluctuate and differ from country to country).

Combining these two datasets provides a QR code that border entry authorities can trust. It doesn’t reveal any personal health data – it tells you about compliance of results versus border entry requirements for a particular country. So, if your border control rules say that you need to take a test of a certain nature within 72 hours prior to arrival, the tool will confirm whether the traveller has taken that corresponding test in a trusted laboratory, and the test was indeed performed less than three days prior to landing.

The purpose is to create a common good that many authentication providers can use and to provide anyone, in a very agnostic fashion, with access to those registries.

What is the WHO’s role?

There is currently an effort at the WHO to create standards that would process data on the types of vaccinations, how these are channelled into health and healthcare systems registries, the use cases – beyond the management of vaccination campaigns – include border control but also possibly in the future access to stadia or large events. By establishing in a truly ethical fashion harmonized standards, we can avoid a scenario whereby you create two classes of citizens – those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

So rather than building a set of rules that would be left to the interpretation of member states or private-sector operators like cruises, airlines or conveners of gatherings, we support the WHO’s effort to create a standard for member states for requesting vaccinations and how it would permit the various kinds of use cases.

It is important that we rely on the normative body (the WHO) to create the vaccine credential requirements. The Forum is involved in the WHO taskforce to reflect on those standards and think about how they would be used. The WHO’s goal is to deploy standards and recommendations by mid-March 2021, and the hope is that they will be more harmonized between member states than they have been to date in the field of diagnostics.

What about the private sector and separate initiatives?

When registry frameworks are being developed for authentication tools providers, they should at a minimum feed as experiments into the standardization efforts being driven by WHO, knowing that the final guidance from the only normative body with an official UN mandate may in turn force those providers to revise their own frameworks. We certainly support this type of interaction, as public- and private-sector collaboration is key to overcoming the global challenge posed by COVID-19.

What more needs to be done to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines?

As the WHO has warned, vaccine nationalism – or a hoarding and “me-first” approach to vaccine deployment – risks leaving “the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at risk.”

COVAX, supported by the World Economic Forum, is coordinated by the World Health Organization in partnership with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; CEPI, the Centre for Epidemics Preparedness Innovations and others. So far, 190 economies have signed up.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator) is another partnership, with universal access and equity at its core, that has been successfully promoting global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. The World Economic Forum is a member of the ACT-Accelerator’s Facilitation Council (governing body).

World Economic Forum

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Science & Technology

Iran among five pioneers of nanotechnology

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Prioritizing nanotechnology in Iran has led to this country’s steady placement among the five pioneers of the nanotechnology field in recent years, and approximately 20 percent of all articles provided by Iranian researchers in 2020 are relative to this area of technology.

Iran has been introduced as the 4th leading country in the world in the field of nanotechnology, publishing 11,546 scientific articles in 2020.

The country held a 6 percent share of the world’s total nanotechnology articles, according to StatNano’s monthly evaluation accomplished in WoS databases.

There are 227 companies in Iran registered in the WoS databases, manufacturing 419 products, mainly in the fields of construction, textile, medicine, home appliances, automotive, and food.

According to the data, 31 Iranian universities and research centers published more than 50 nano-articles in the last year. 

In line with China’s trend in the past few years, this country is placed in the first stage with 78,000 nano-articles (more than 40 percent of all nano-articles in 2020), and the U.S. is at the next stage with 24,425 papers. These countries have published nearly half of the whole world’s nano-articles.

In the following, India with 9 percent, Iran with 6 percent, and South Korea and Germany with 5 percent are the other head publishers, respectively.

Almost 9 percent of the whole scientific publications of 2020, indexed in the Web of Science database, have been relevant to nanotechnology.

There have been 191,304 nano-articles indexed in WoS that had to have a 9 percent growth compared to last year. The mentioned articles are 8.8 percent of the whole produced papers in 2020.

Iran ranked 43rd among the 100 most vibrant clusters of science and technology (S&T) worldwide for the third consecutive year, according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2020 report.

The country experienced a three-level improvement compared to 2019.

Iran’s share of the world’s top scientific articles is 3 percent, Gholam Hossein Rahimi She’erbaf, the deputy science minister, has announced.

The country’s share in the whole publications worldwide is 2 percent, he noted, highlighting, for the first three consecutive years, Iran has been ranked first in terms of quantity and quality of articles among Islamic countries.

Sourena Sattari, vice president for science and technology has said that Iran is playing the leading role in the region in the fields of fintech, ICT, stem cell, aerospace, and is unrivaled in artificial intelligence.

From our partner Tehran Times

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