Data can improve our sustainability work


As leaders, scholars and practitioners in higher education, it is our responsibility and privilege to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead, to make judgements about where we should be sailing towards in the post-Covid world and, importantly, to collectively shape the future of sustainable development for all. Universities are facing a myriad of questions, with the imperative to respond through data driven solutions.

Many of us have been committed to using digital technology to enhance the learning and teaching experience, resulting in an improved student outcome. However, the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic is different. For example, the fast and forced transition to online delivery modes could have left some of our students literally without appropriate support to continue learning.

At the University of Auckland, this is a particular concern for our Maori and Pacific students. One of our responses has been to provide students with devices essential to continuing their learning. From the student learning management systems we maintain, we are able to agglomerate student engagement data to such detail that our procurement office would know precisely whether we should post a laptop or offer wi-fi plans to the affected students.

There is no doubt that data has helped us to better understand students’ needs and react rapidly to minimise disruption caused to their learning experience.

However, data will tell us much more than this in the future, related to other matters that are close to our students’ hearts, including sustainability.

Our sustainability research themes align well with the societal and environmental needs of New Zealand and the Oceania region. Prior to Covid, our approach to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals was reflected in the way we adopted the SDGs as the framework to understand our research contribution towards sustainability issues.

Our team of data scientists have been developing a technique to map between our research publications and the SDG targets. Helping us to protect blue penguins, contributing towards conserving the oceans and marine resources, and ensuring our earthquake engineering research is an important step towards ensuring our cities are more sustainable.

This level of understanding is critical for universities to formulate relevant and impactful research strategies and is only possible due to thousands and millions of research data maintained in university data warehouses.

Knowing how our research maps to the SDG targets helps us to more effectively engage with local communities and in our partnerships with other organisations.

As more organisations map their activities to the SDGs, a common language is created to better inform areas where organisations can work together to increase their impact on their communities. We are, for example, mapping the university’s environmental research with local government’s priorities for climate action. We are supporting our local government to deliver on our city’s commitment to C40 cities – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Too often, the challenge to tackling sustainability issues and implementing appropriate sustainable measures across universities originates from the lack of understanding of how much harm we have caused to the environment or how much better off we could have been by taking sustainability measures.

We are committed to sustainability reporting and university KPIs that relate to energy and water consumption, waste to landfill and carbon emissions. This high degree of data transparency and public scrutiny is essential for us to maintain momentum, to engender public trust and to deliver on our global civic responsibilities.

At home we are using data to identify our top “criminals” of carbon emissions (air travel, 49 per cent; electricity, 32 per cent; gas, 18 per cent); we are using data to trace and celebrate our every progress, big or small, towards achieving sustainability, and also to understand our own carbon footprint better.

Our Sustainable Development Goals Summit last year only generated 69 grams of clean food waste per delegate, and last week we diverted furniture equal in weight to 13 elephants from landfill in relocating students from one building to another.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires us all to work together in ways that are effective and meaningful. The commitment we have made to the United Nations Academic Impact group to lead its 1,300 membership of higher education providers on SDG 4: quality education, has led to the open sharing of resources such as curriculum materials to help teachers resettle students into the classroom when they return after lockdown.

This resource was developed in partnership with other universities, our local school communities and government. Working with others in partnership ensured instant success, as measured by the 250,000 downloads the resource has had within the first month and that 50 per cent of New Zealand primary school teachers are regularly using the site.

The current crisis will eventually pass. The risk for Oceania is that we manage the Covid-19 crisis effectively, but fail to take account of the enormous potential that is contained within its stark message.

Author Bio: Dawn Freshwater is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland