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A Lancaster University professor has been awarded a prestigious senior fellowship to bring about a step change in data-driven environmental science.

Major technological advances have transformed our ability to collect, share and interpret data at an unprecedented scale, but Computer Scientists believe environmental science has yet to fully reap the rewards of these changes.

Cities have capitalised on the ‘internet of things’ (where everyday devices and sensors are connected to the internet) and cloud computing (remote storing of readily accessible information), changing the way many urbanites live and work.

However, from flooding monitoring and real-time livestock tracking to data sharing among citizen scientists around the globe, technology can profoundly improve our understanding and management of the natural world.

Professor Gordon Blair of Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications has been awarded a £2.5 million Senior Fellowship to find new ways of enabling the countryside to reap the benefits of the digital age.

Focussing on three major areas of digital innovation – the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and data science – the five-year EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) funded project, entitled ‘The role of Digital Technologies in understanding, mitigating and adapting to environmental change, will examine how digital data can  inform land management, support food security and tackle biodiversity loss.

During the fellowship, the research team will examine a range of important environmental areas including looking at how cloud computing and real-time data can inform investments into flood defences, and also working with farmers using IoT sensors and data science methods to tackle crop diseases or improve animal health and food production.

Professor Blair said: “Technology is having a profound impact on the digital economy and many areas of society, but its role in managing environmental change is significantly under-developed.

“For example, the internet of things has the potential to provide rich, real-time data for the natural environment at a scale previously unimaginable. Science has a crucial role in interpreting the torrent of complex information we can now capture, but to do this science has to change. We want to harness digital developments to support a paradigm shift towards an open, collaborative, global approach which offers meaningful insight into what is happening in the environment. We hope this approach will light the way for more intelligent policy making to help protect the environment now and for generations to come.”

The project will tap into the expertise of academics within Lancaster University’s Data Science Institute, its School of Computing and Communications, the Lancaster Environment Centre and Statistics and Operational Research (STOR-i) centre. It will also involve experts at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The programme will help address two priority areas identified by the EPSRC – advancing the UK’s digital economy and also Living With Environment Change.

Professor Tom Rodden, EPSRC’s Deputy CEO, said: “This EPSRC Fellowship award will build on our earlier investments in digital economy and ICT research. Collectively we are gathering more and more data, day by day, but we have to be able to interpret it and use it productively to make well-informed choices and changes in policy across a wide variety of issues, not least is how we manage and adapt to changes in our environment.”