News / Environment

The digital activist harnessing data to help save the planet

By ellie pipe, Tuesday May 19, 2020

The UK has some of the lowest levels of woodland in Europe at just 13 per cent, according to Friends of the Earth.

Bristol is one of many cities in the country that has committed to doubling tree cover in a bid to see more carbon and harmful emissions absorbed from the air, fight flooding, reduce pollution, nurture wildlife and make landscapes more resilient.

But the process of saving the planet isn’t an easy one and finding the land available for planting in order to fulfil that pledge can be a challenge, particularly when grounds are owned as part of a corporate portfolio.

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That is where Vana comes in. Created by Jaya Chakrabarti, the founder of TISCreport, the new afforestation app uses the same principles of open data used to tackle slavery in supply chains and applies it to identifying land available.

The digital activist and entrepreneur believes the appetite for corporate activism is growing exponentially and Vana could enable the UK, and eventually the rest of the world, to harness the resources of those companies in a measurable, impactful way.

Explaining how the project came to fruition, Chakrabarti says: “UN experts have said that we lack data for 68 per cent of the sustainable development goal (SDG) indicators – this includes the efforts to increase afforestation and reforestation.

“The biggest missing piece of the puzzle slotted into place when the UK’s Land Registry made corporate land ownership data available for projects. That was when we started to get really excited and came up with an idea for driving afforestation using data: Vana.

“In combination with the unique data infrastructure we had developed with TISCreport, we finally had a way to provide land-owning companies to play their part to restore nature in partnership with environmental bodies.”

Chakrabarti says that in the UK, a minority of big companies own significant assets, including land. Aggregating publicly available corporate data as open data has been proven to influence corporate behaviour on compliance matters and she believes it can be used to encourage boards to make proactive climate-saving decisions.

The project has the backing of major environmental, academic and corporate organisations, including Friends of the Earth.

Mary says a wide range of strategies are needed to double the UK’s tree cover. – photo courtesy of Mary Stevens

Mary Stevens is the experiments programme manager at Friends of the Earth and board member for Vana.

“In our area, Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset have already signed up to double tree cover,” says Stevens.

“But finding the land to unlock this ambition is tricky, particularly where suitable land may be owned as part of a corporate portfolio. This is the problem that Vana is trying to unlock. It’s great that Jaya is looking to use its existing relationships with business to help identify this land.

“In order to meet these goals, we’re going to need a wide range of strategies. During lockdown, access to nature close to where people live has been increasingly important for our wellbeing. So, at Friends of the Earth, we’re also thinking about how we can identify ‘hope spots’ – the priority locations for nature restoration – to build on the hope that nature offers and capture people’s imagination about the future that’s possible.”

The Vana team are on the search for businesses to help co-develop the app to go from prototype to product. Anyone interested in being involved can contact @jayacg.

Main photo courtesy of Jaya Chakrabarti

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