The Data-Driven EnviroLab has been awarded two grants to continue work on two groundbreaking research projects: the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index (UESI) and Net Zero HERO: High-Performance Extraction and Retrieval Operation (NZT HERO).

Both projects have seen success in the first phase and plan to expand their work in the second phase to be more inclusive, efficient, and scalable.

The UESI project was launched in 2018 to bridge the gap in information related to global cities’ environmental and social inclusion performance in collaboration with one of DDL’s close partners, the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness

More than half of the global population lives in cities, and that number is expected to increase to 68 percent in 2050. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG-11) – to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable  – recognizes interconnected problems cities are facing due to their rapid growth. As part of this goal, the UN calls on cities to provide basic housing and sustainable transport, reduce air pollution and waste, and secure access to green space.

Solutions to environmental issues need to consider trade-offs. For example, creating more green space in a city may mean there is less space for affordable housing, or a city may be focusing its environmental efforts in more affluent areas, putting minority or low-income populations at a disadvantage. SDG-11 explicitly calls for cities to ensure equitable, inclusive policy design to ensure all urban residents benefit equally. 

Despite this charge, there is a lack of existing knowledge about whether cities are truly meeting SDG-11. That’s why DDL  developed the first spatially explicit, globally comparable index – the UESI – to provide a tool for cities to measure urban environmental performance on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis and social inclusion.

Phase 1 of the project launched in 2018 at the 23rd United Nations Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland, featuring information on 25 cities. The first phase of the UESI project established a database of crucial sustainability information from nearly 165 cities, from Lagos, Nigeria to Fargo, North Dakota to Tokyo, Japan. However, there are still some remaining questions: Will  findings change when  more cities are considered from the other regions, particularly the Global South? How do we know if certain climate actions have disproportionate impacts on different communities? How can we aggregate and compare sector-specific and regionally-specific information on climate action?

Phase 2, set to take place from 2022 through 2024, aims to answer these questions by including more cities in the index, mainly from the Global South, and by expanding the list of indicators to include a new climate policy indicator that tracks the progress of cities’ towards their self-reported climate goals. These new climate change indicators will draw from methods DDL has been developing in parallel to utilize machine learning to predict city-level emissions. Phase 2 will also produce a deeper case study to examine urban environment and mental health intersectionality. We also plan to revamp the website portal to incorporate cloud computing technology to scale up data analysis abilities and continue our communications campaign; DDL has already released half a dozen publications related to the UESI, and plans to release more in the coming months and years.

Automating data extraction for net-zero pledges

The NZT HERO project was started as part of the Net Zero Tracker to explore ways to increase the efficiency and scalability of data collection for the Net Zero Tracker utilizing machine learning. The Net Zero Tracker was designed to create a definitive register of net zero and ambitious climate pledges made by nations, states & regions, cities and major companies. 

The Net Zero tracker was launched in collaboration with Oxford Net Zero, NewClimate Institute, and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). Development of HERO, the NLP tool made to make data collection for the tracker more efficient, is spearheaded by DDL and Arboretica, with support from Oxford Net Zero.

As national and non-state actors including cities, regions, and companies, have rushed to establish net zero commitments, this data is becoming increasingly challenging to compile and maintain manually; so, the DDL and partners decided to create HERO: High-Performance Extraction and Retrieval Operation. NZT HERO presents an algorithmic approach based on Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods to aid data collection for the Net Zero Tracker,  and works by looking through data available on the internet, filtering and extracting key data points, and passing those data points onto validators for confirmation, reducing the need for manual data collection.

In a world of exponentially increasing climate commitments, NZT HERO is crucial to efficiently updating our understanding of net zero commitments globally.

“Net zero is a club everyone should join – the science behind going net zero is clear and by now we all know the direction we need to head towards,” said Zhi Yi Yeo, a research scientist at DDL. “The question that remains is when we get there and how we get there. That’s where the Net Zero Tracker aims to provide more clarity, by providing transparency around the when and the how. The NZT HERO aims to aid in that effort by increasing the scalability of the Net Zero Tracker and reducing the time required to access up-to-date data.”

In Phase 1, the NZT HERO project has collected and validated information on actors’ net zero commitment statements along with the commitment target year and validated results on determining the presence of specific greenhouse gas emissions percent reductions targets. NZT HERO was also in the early testing phase for identifying interim targets and recognizing the scope of greenhouse gasses mentioned in target.

In Phase 2, which will take place from 2022-2023, researchers will improve existing data collection algorithms and expand on the scope of information collected by the algorithms. In phase 2, researchers will also develop data extraction for new features such as  baseline information on end and interim targets and expand coverage of data sources to include data from multiple sources (e.g. climate action reports, sustainability reports, etc.)

So far, these two projects have provided crucial information about sustainability commitments’ efficacy and tracking net zero progress. Stay tuned as we continue this important research to inform policymakers, businesses, city planners, and the general public about their sustainability goals moving forward.