Technology can allow us to study and understand the world in order to take better care of it. From understanding animal populations to being able to predict climate change, to finding our way around the world, IT has a big effect on the environment; Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
This is process of collecting readings from sensors without any human intervention needed over a long period of time. Data logging has been used in weather stations to more accurately predict the weather, and has even been used by NASA to collect data about other planets. Atmosphere, temperature, and wind speed have all been captured over time on Mars for the Pathfinder project. Data logging is also used in nuclear power stations to help monitor the reactors and alert staff to potential issues.
Analogue vs Digital Data
Flying high above the Earth at altitudes of above 600km are advanced imaging satellites that are capable of taking high resolution photographs of anywhere on the planet. It has been suggested that some are so advanced that they could take pictures that are capable of resolutions to 12.5 centimetres (12.5cm per pixel).
Once data is captured by these technologies, it must be processed into a visualisation of the data like the one shown of Mars here.
Mapping systems work by taking the high resolution images from the satellites above the Earth, and stitching them together into one large image that can accessed, scaled and rotated through a browser or an app. The data is stored in a database with information such as coordinates, location altitude, date and time.
Online maps often have data layers that can be overlaid onto the map with information such as points of interest, road names, hotels, restaurants etc... They also often include geotagged images that allow users to see what that area of the map looks like from a first person perspective. Google's Street View has taken that concept further and captured panoramic images of several countries using special cars with panoramic cameras mounted on top while they drive around.
When online maps are combined with a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver, they can be used to create navigation systems for cars or in apps for when users are walking around. Virtual globes have also been created, like Google Earth which allows the users to fly around the world and zoom in on any area.
Satellite and mapping concerns
Some governments and members of the public around the world have expressed concerns about the use of mapping systems and satellite imagery. Their concerns are as follows:
- - Military concerns that their restricted bases may be seen from above without authorisation.
- - Government concerns that major landmarks such as power stations may be used by terrorists to coordinate an attack.
- - Regular citizens concerned that their property being shown online may encourage thieves to plan robberies.
- - Citizens are also concerned that Google Street View may inadvertently show images of inside their properties in passing.
- - Images taken by satellites may show details of back gardens or fenced off places, which is a breach of their privacy.
Geographical Information Systems provide ways to store and analyse large amounts of data; its similar to a virtual globe in some ways.
The application of GIS determines the data that it contains. It may have data on population, crime statistics, average incomes, locations of police or fire stations. It might even contain data on fault lines so that town and city planners know where is the best place to build and where to position hospitals in case an earthquake occurred.
A GIS can be used to calculate the response time for an emergency service in the event of a natural disaster.
Some GIS are used to track animals that have been tagged to understand their movements in the wild.
As GIS can store large amounts of data, they can be used to look at patterns of change over a period of time.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It works by having GPS receivers and a network of GPS satellites. GPS receivers use trilateration (not triangulation, as no angles are involved) to calculate their position on the Earth. The receiver records how long it takes for the radio waves to reach, therefore knowing how far away it is from the satellite, and then does the same with another satellite to perform the trilateration.
The impacts of technology on the environment works both ways. On one hand, the increased use of smart devices in the home means that effiency of water and power use is improved, digital replacements for paper saves trees and Internet communications instead of flying in planes reduces emissions.
On the other hand, resources used for manufacturing, obsolete electronic products, dangerous chemicals in production processes, IT power consumption and pollution from discarded old IT equipment all give cause for concern.
As the web has become integral in people's lives around the world, popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, all need to store and manage the distribution of data from massive data centres around the globe. These data centres contain 1000s of servers, and more equipment to keep them cool and running effectively. One report from Greenpeace in 2010 found that data centres consume 2% of all global electricity, which will grow and grow as more users join the Internet.
The depletion of resources used for IT manufacturing is a major concern. Despite microchips being very small, it does take a lot of toxic chemicals in order to manufacture them. Chips are heated etched and cleaned over and over with purified water which takes up an enormous amount of energy. Silicon Valley in the United States is now one of the most polluted areas in the country due to this manufacturing.
The chemicals used have also been linked to illnesses such as birth defects and cancers. Recirculated and rebreathed air in protective suits has also been linked to illnesses such as leukaemia and other blood defects. Arsenic, benzene and trichloroethylene have steadily been removed from the manufacturing process by many 'bluechips' such as Apple, in order to protect staff health, as well as make the products highly recyclable.
Most electronic equipment contains harmful materials such as lead, arsenic and mercury. Whilst being used in the equipment, they are not harmful, but the issue arises when it comes to dispose of the equipment after it is obsolete. Most e-waste ends up in landfills in the United States but another method of disposal, burning, causes air and ground pollution.
Some companies do use recycling companies for disposal, but many of those are overseas in places like India and China and cause dangerous conditions for workers there who 'break down' the obsolete technology.
Recently Apple has been accused of something called planned obsolescence. By releasing new devices every year, Apple wants to keep their revenues as high as possible. To encourage users to purchase the new versions and dispose of their current device, Apple was found to be slowing down the older devices with software updates. They suggested it was to ensure the products continued to function, but many have accused Apple of planned obsolescence.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The three R's are various solutions to reduce the environmental impact of waste.