Sustainability app brings scientists a web-based toolbox

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Scientists doing due diligence to provide answers to some of the world’s most pressing questions – increasing food production, the availability of clean water and energy and preserving or increasing biodiversity – can be overwhelmed by the complexity.

Achieving environmental sustainability is gnarly, and like many of today’s problems, begs the question, “shouldn’t there be an app for that?”

There is.

In this week’s journal Applied Geography, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers present the Telecoupling GeoApp, a web-based application that provides researchers and practitioners with a useful platform to address globally important issues such as international trade, species invasion, biodiversity conservation, and land-use change.

The telecoupling framework seeks to advance understandings of socioeconomic and environmental interactions between coupled human and natural systems across distances. It was introduced in 2011 as a way to directly address the dynamic interactions of global sustainability challenges.

"The GeoApp gives researchers and practitioners an accessible web platform to explore relationships between coupled human and natural systems,” said first author Paul McCord, a research associate in the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS). “Our goal is to continue working with researchers and stakeholders to better understand their needs and expand the GeoApp to become a comprehensive platform for the entire telecoupling community.

McCord worked with MSU-CSIS GIS developer Francesco Tonini to first create the Telecoupling Toolbox, a suite of desktop-based software tools developed to allow researchers to operationalize the framework and systematically explore complex interactions. Following the deployment of these desktop-based tools, the next step has been to develop a web-based application to provide greater flexibility in visualizing and quantifying telecoupling components and their outcomes.

To maintain transparency and promote collaborations between users from different fields, all source code, sample data, and documentation of all tools and applications within the Telecoupling Toolbox are freely available online

The Telecoupling GeoApp includes a large collection of widgets dedicated to separate tasks such as querying data, mapping and visualization, quantitative analysis, and satellite imagery analysis.

“Today’s sustainability challenges – such as those outlined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – demand a multidisciplinary skill set that can be daunting to any individual,” said sustainability scholar Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU-CSIS director. “The telecoupling toolbox helps bridge knowledge and skill gaps. It can become part of the powerful approaches needed to solve problems telecoupled across the world.”

“The Telecoupling GeoApp: A Web-GIS application to systematically analyze telecouplings and sustainable development” was funded by the National Science Foundation and Michigan AgBioResearch.

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