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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


This was the first meeting in a series of three about food and water supply resilience and we took a global view and starting to explore new ways to bring together 'big' datasets from different sources to assess risk and resilience in food supply chains.

We jointly hosted these three meetings with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission and we are co-producing papers to identify future research gaps and opportunities in this area and to highlight potential areas for collabotation between researchers at the two institutions.

Our first witness was Professor Alan O'Niell, Emeritus Professor of Meteorology at the University of Reading and the founding Director of the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation. He is a visiting professor at the Cavendish and while he is here, he is interested in building capability in the use of satellite data and "big data" analytical methods (e.g. machine learning) for diverse applications in the environmental and climate sectors, in particular in the area of agri-food and sustainable production.

He joined Dr Mukesh Kumar, a Research Associate in the International Manufacturing group at the IfM whose research focuses on risk and resilience in international manufacturing and supply networks, particularly in India. Steve Peedell, a Senior Scientific Officer in the Land Resource Management Unit also flew over from the JRC in Ispra, Italy, where he focuses on projects in the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) regions and developing spatial databases, catalogues and interoperable web services for geoinformation.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion included:

It was agreed that ultimately, it is not the data in itself that holds value, but the information it contains

Danny Ralph argued that “As researchers, part of our job is to equip others to do their job better”. Bearing this in mind, what kinds of questions should we be asking?  Should questions drive our search for data or do should the data available drive the questions we ask?

‘Big data’ doesn’t just refer to data volume, it is also becoming increasingly complex and heterogeneous, and is being drawn from a wide variety of sources which presents challenges in itself.

How do we collect and analyze data given the pace of change? Turning raw data into information products to feed into policy processes and create responsive policies is particularly challenging. How can we trace the signature of certain information through to policy decisions?

How will we meet the next generation of reporting challenges presented by the Sustainable Development Goals and other national, regional and international level agreements?

How can we move from tracking historical trends into identifying emerging risks and project past information forwards into the future?

We touched briefly on data security, especially when using open data. Could trusted secure systems encourage people to allow their data to be used in ways that would otherwise not be acceptable?

For more information about these meetings, please follow the links on the right or e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond (