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Defra minister Rory Stewart plugs data analytics at IEA launch

Reading University’s £13m Institute for Environmental Analytics launches with demonstrator projects in train, and three new partners

Reading University officially launched its £13m Institute for Environmental Analytics (IEA) on 26 January, with Defra minister Rory Stewart speaking in support.

The institute’s CEO, Colin McKinnon, announced three new partners – engineering consultancy BMT Group; environmental consultancy ERM; and Agrimetrics, another University of Reading-affiliated big data centre – to join the 13 organisations that signed up to (and co-funded) the IEA initiative in 2015.

Stewart, under-secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), hailed the “imagination of HEFCE [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] in funding the institute”. HEFCE provided £5.6m last year.

“Environmental data is at the heart of everything we do at Defra, whether I’m looking someone in the eyes from Leeds and explaining why we are spending £42m on flood defences as opposed to £140m, or whether I am discussing with the Tanzanian government why lion reserves for hunting should be allowed as part of a conservation strategy,” said Stewart.

“I am excited to be playing a small part in launching and backing this initiative. I’d appeal to you to get involved with Defra. We are putting our datasets out there. It is only going to be any good if [the environmental science community] makes use of it. Come back to us and fight with us as necessary,” he added.

“We need to think very deeply about what we do with government computer systems. How do we make sure we are not signing up to 10-year contracts that mean while the Irish are using Lidar [light detection and ranging] data to do their rural agency payments we can’t?”

L-R: Defra minister Rory Stewart; guests networking at the IEA launch at Digital Catapult; David Bell KCB, vice-chancellor, University of Reading; Derek Greer, chief operations officer, Telespazio Vega; IEA CEO Colin McKinnon; IEA environmental data consultant Debbie Clifford

He asked those attending the launch event to help with IT skills in government: “If civil servants don’t really get how this stuff works, it is no use us pontificating.”

But he also warned about the need to be aware of the limits of data in the face of the physical reality of flooding.

The IEA is to act as an intermediary between scientific expertise and industry. It is doing “pre-commercial R&D and the development of proof-of-concept demonstrators”, according to an institute statement.

It works across five sectors: Agri-food, insurance, built environment and infrastructure, logistics and transport, and utilities.

“We are proud to see the reality of the IEA taking shape, with early project wins and most of the team in place,” said McKinnon. “Just last week we delivered our first training course on utilising the free data being generated by the new EU Copernicus satellite programme, which was sold out. We are in advanced discussions with further partners. We have finished our first demonstrator for the insurance sector. And we are working on two more, with seven or eight others in the pipeline.”

David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, said: “There is a long and distinguished history of environmental and climate research at Reading. The IEA is also designed to make a contribution to the development of the UK’s skills base. There is a shortage of environmental analytics skills and we will be offering training to make commercial use of open data.

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