GeoJournal 23.3 249-255
Ó 1991 (Mar)          Harmonization:

Harmonization of Environmental Measurement
Keune, Hartmut, Dr., UNEP-HEM Office, c/o GSF- Forschungszentrum für
Umwelt und Gesundheit, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 8042 Neuherberg, Germany;
Murray, A. Beatrice, Dr., UNEP-HEM Office, c/o Institut für Pathologie,
lngolstädter Landstr. 1, 8042 Neuherberg, Germany;
Benking, Heiner, Erlenweg 1, 8919 Greifenberg, Germany
please see also GeoJournal 26.3 323-334, 1992 (March)     Access and Assimilation
Pivotal Environmental Information Challenges -  Linking, Archiving, and Exploiting Multi-Lingual and  Multi-Scale Environmental Information Repositories

ABSTRACT: A wealth of data on the state of the environment is being created in innumerable programmes world-wide. Optimal use of this data requires that information on its existence is available, that it can be readily accessed and - most important- that the data be compiled and classified in a compatible way. Achieving this is the basic aim of harmonization of environmental measurement. Although great care is generally taken to harmonize data collected within programmes, harmonization between programmes remains a major goal for the future.  In 1989 UNEP established an office as a basis for the planned Harmonization of Environmental Measurement Project under the auspices of the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS). The office describes the mission, rationale, and objectives of the project and the concepts underlying the harmonization of information on the environment collected at different levels and in different programmes.

Rationale for World-Wide Harmonization of Information on the Environment Awareness of pressing environmental problems has increased dramatically in recent years. The potentially threatening nature of - climatic change and CO2 build-up ozone depletion in the global stratosphere air pollution and acid deposition - increasing pollution of oceans and coastal areas, as well as freshwater supplies - the depletion of tropical and other forests - the reduction of biological diversity - droughts and floods - the loss of productive land due to salinization and soil degradation - the impact of hazardous substances on ecosystems and man - the impact of increasing urbanization, etc. is now widely recognized to be a major cause for concern.

There is an urgent need for action to combat these problems. But despite the considerable expenditure of effort, both political and scientific, concrete suggestions for effective and viable solutions to these problems remain rare. Research programmes continue to be created and terminated, often with little regard to previous work in the same area, and financial and personnel resources are wasted through duplication of effort in the collection of data. This unsatisfactory state of affairs reflects the general feeling of helplessness generated by the lack of the solid base of knowledge necessary for informed decisions.
Ready availability of appropriate information about the actual condition of the environment at different levels - global, regional, and local, - is a fundamental prerequisite for informed and effective action to combat environmental problems. In order to build up a comprehensive knowledge of the environment it is necessary to have reliable, high quality, internally consistent, and internationally compatible environmental observations, measurements, and data. The ability to make such measurements and to assemble such data requires improved scientific understanding of environmental processes, continued delopment of methods of observing and measuring characteristics of the environment, and international harmonization of measurements and of the data obtained.

Innumerable environmental programmes and projects exist, supported or carried out by international and national organizations both governmental and non-governmental, and working at global, regional, national, and local levels. This intense activity is creating a vast wealth of data on the state of the environment and the changes taking place within it. Most of this data is collected with a specific aim in view (e.g. the state of forest damage in a selected area or the level of contaminants in a local drinking water supply). Ecosystems, however, are extremely complex, functioning in a multimedia and multisectorial manner. Disturbances in apparently quite distinct parts of an ecosystem can result in unexpected effects and damage in quite different areas of the same system or even in other related ecosystems. In other words: much, if not all of the data accumulated during investigations of specific problems could be valuable both for understanding and predicting a vast range of other effects in situations not obviously related to the original purpose of the investigation. (The state of a local drinking water supply, for example, may have implications for the viability of domestic and wild animal life and thus in the long-term for the entire food chain; effects far beyond the original question of potability for the local population.)

Clearly the incredible potential wealth of the data being accumulated is not close to being fully realized. There are at least three major reasons for this failure to fully exploit these resources.

1) Awareness and availability
Very often researchers in a particular field may be completely unaware of the existence of relevant information from different scientific fields or obtained using very different collection methods. Equally, relevant data may be available in a form which is not easily interpreted. A typical case is the underuse of the data obtained by remote sensing. Similarly, researchers may be aware that certain information must exist, but do not know how to gain access to it. Clearly there is a pressing need for a resource information network as well as direct data accessing projects.

Since the majofity of programmes and activities concerned with environmental measurements have been developed independently and with different aims in view, the resultant data are generally classified in ways which are not compatible. There is an urgent need for increased standardization of the methods and procedures for data collection and processing - that is standardization of terminologies, sampling procedures, classification systems, methods of quality control and quality assurance, data reliability indices, etc. The full potential of the wealth of collected data can only be realized when the data are harmonized in this way.

2) A vailable models and geo-ecological classifisation systems
There is a lack of knowledge of the complex interactions within finely balanced ecosystems, both small and large scale. This highlights the need for the development of theoretival simulation models incorporating data from a wide variety of sources (molecular biology can be as important as remote sensing) and related to clearly defined ecosystems, as well as models relating one system to another. Such models should combine both the results of basic research into the structure of delineated representative ecosystems and the results of long-term monitoring of ecological processes. But in order to be able to combine data from such different sources effectively, it is necessary that the data are compiled and classified in a compatible fashion, and proper testing requires access to a central source of information giving details of available resources, which again must contain compatible data.

Data classified in different temporal or spatial classification systems, using differing terminology, different base values, or different types or constraints of measurement, are simply incompatible for data processing purposes. As a trivial example, it is not possible to compare two sets of data directly even if both have been collected in an identical fashion according to the highest standards, if one is recorded in five-year periods from April to April, and the other in two-year periods from January to January.

3) Data prosessing
In order to cross-link data from a wide variety of sources it is necessary to use information systems. Relational database management systems and special systems such as geographical information systems {GIS) are typical of the type of tool which can be used. Such systems, however, can only function efficiently and sensibly if all the data available are of the same quality and presented in the same format.

To summarize, despite the vast quantity of information about the environment which has been collected, our actual knowledge of the environment and environmental processes is still rather limited. And this lack of understanding can even, on occasion, contribute to damaging delay in tackling major problems, allowing energy to be diverted into the discussion of 'real' causes and disputes about possible sources of obvious change -and away from the solution of potentially life-threatening problems.

Who is Doing what in Harmonization of Environmental Data?

In recent years a number of projects have been started with the aim of combining data from different sources to provide integrated information about specific complex problems. The GEMS Human Exposure Assessment Location (HEAL) programme is a valuable example. This programme is designed to investigate the total exposure risk of humans in selected locations to environmental pollutants via the main media of uptake -air, water, food, dermal - and to provide a basis for evaluation of the effects on human health.

Similarly the aim of integrated ecological monitoring and research is to investigate the levels of selected environmental pollutants in different compartments - air, water, soil, flora and fauna - of the same ecosystem, thus enabling integrated assessment of the total burden as well as providing a basis for understanding the complex pathways leading to observed effects.

A number of global projects have also been designed with the specific aim of bringing together different kinds of environmental information and data, for example Biosphere Reserves (UNESCO-Man and the Biosphere programme) and Geosphere- Biosphere-Observatories (ICSU's International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, IGBP). As discussed above, however, if maximum use is to be made of the data compiled in such programmes, it is nevessary that the original data is collected and presented in ways which are compatible.

There is a wide-range of groups actively engaged in tackling various problems connected with the harmonization of environmental data. The ECE statistic commission, for example, has stressed the need to strengthen the co-ordinating role of the UN Statistical Office in the development of concepts, methods, and classification modes for environmental statistics, in the development and use of international environmental databases, and in the promotion of regional programmes of environmental statistics. The UN Statistical Office has already compiled a framework for environmental statistics and the ECE Statistic Commission is itself in the process of identifying so called lead data bases for environmental data collection in an attempt to avoid duplication of efforts, at least within the UN system.

The International Standardization Organization (ISO), the Comite Europeen de Normalisation (CEN), and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has been very successful in standardizing the methods used in environmental measurement. They have established several technical committees responsible for the the standardization of the methods used for measurement in different media and compartments, such as air, water, soil, food etc.

The Commission of the European Communities (CEC) has given the Joint Research Centre in Ispra (Italy) the task of harmonizing environment related research activities. Furthermore establishment of the European Environment Agency (EEA), (still in the planning stages and intended to take over the task of the CORINE-project, Coordination of Information on the Environment) should prove to be a big step towards more harmonization of environmental activities within Europe. The interest of scientists in establishing international environmental programmes combining data from all sectors of the environment means that the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), in the form of its Scientific Committee for the Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and its Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), is actively involved in dealing with the problems of harmonization of environmental data in research and monitoring.

Finally UNEP is responsible for coordinating the environmental programmes of many special organizations within the UN system, such as WHO, WMO, FAO, IAEA, UNESCO, and is thus concerned with the harmonization of their data. At the same time UNEP is faced with the specific problems assoviated with harmonizing the data collected in the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS).

All these groups, however, are only concerned with specific aspects of data harmonization. Thus there is still a very real problem resulting from the lack of general guidelines or central coordination. Although data may be harmonized in a specific area, there is at present no means of ensuring that they are harmonized, and thus compatible, at a global or multidisciplinary level. Harmonization within each single programme has been improved in the last years, but harmonization between programmes and activities remains a central goal for the future.

The Need for Comprehensive Harmonization of Environmental Measurement

There is clearly a pressing need for a group whose principle concern is with the harmonization of environmental measurement and the coordination of initiatives in this direction so that basic data can be used in a wide variety of different programmes concerned with integrated, multimedia, multilevel analysis on a global basis. Such a group should be in a position to act as a coordination and information centre for the wide range of activities concerned with data harmonization, able to identify areas of need and, through participation in consultation groups, standardizing meetings, etc., to encourage the development and actively promote the application of appropriate guidelines and strategies. Equally this group would have an important role to play in raising awareness of the considerable long-term savings to be made through the adoption of harmonized practices in environmental measurement - through avoidance of duplication and optimizing the use of collected data -thus providing a political motive for adoption of the nevessary procedures. A coordinating body of this sort, working in close cooperation with the various national and international bodies tackling problems of environmental harmonization, would be able to ensure that maximum usc is made of efforts aimed at harmonization - both by providing information about similar programmes, thus helping to avoid duplication, and by promoting contact between different groups in order to prevent dcvelopment of separate non-compatible systems of measurement or similar problems. The immediate objectives which must be fulfilled by such a harmonization group in order to solve the most pressing problems hindering the exploitation of available data resources are the promotion of the development of:

The Harmonization of Environmental Measurement Project (HEM)

The Establishment of HEM
Since environmental problems transcend frontiers, availability of information has become a factor of growing importance in international relations. The United Nations Environment Programme ( UNEP) has been concentrating since 1975 on developing a better understanding of the global environment. The Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS), which is co-ordinated by a spevial centre within UNEP headquarters, was started with the aim of improving environmental data resources. GEMS works both with and through the specialized agencies of the United Nations system - such as WHO, WMO, UNESCO, FAO - and with other relevant international organizations - such as IUCN, ISO, and IIED - and through these organizations with governments, thus bringing their collective expertise to focus on particular environmental monitoring and assessment problems and actions. In developing GEMS, the emphasis has always been on data quality rather than data quantity so that the resultant data can be compared in a meaningful way.

GEMS activities are generally concerned spevifically with different forms of data handling. e.g. collection (WCMC), assessment (MARC), data proccssing, archiving, dissemination, and analytical support (GRID). Much care is taken to ensure compatibility of the data within each programme. However, GEMS has long since recognized the need for a more broadly based harmonization concept, designed to achieve harmonization of data collection and dissemination in such a way that multimedia and transnational environmental problems can be more readily recognized and investigated. A first step in this direction was the setting up of the Human Exposure Assessment Location programme (HEAL), a multimedia multilocation assessment of human exposure to particular pollutants. A different approach is reflected in the decision to establish a Harmonization of Environmental Measurement project (HEM) as part of GEMS.

The need for action on harmonization of environmental measurement was clearly expressed in the declaration by the 13th Economic Summit meeting, June 1987, in Venice, Italy:
"Further to our previous commitment to preserve a healthy environment and to pass it on to the future generations, we welcome the report by the "Environment Experts on the Improvement and Harmonization of Techniques and Practices of Environmental Measurements". Accordingly, we encourage the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to institute a forum for information, exchange, and consultation in cooperation with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), assisted by other interested International Organizations and countries, so that continuing progress in this important field can be ensured. The priority environmental problems identified by the Environment Experts in their report should receive full attention. We underline our own responsibility to encourage efforts to tackle effectively environmental problems of worldwide impact such as stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change, acid rains, endangered species, hazardous substances, air and water pollution, and destruction of tropical forests. We also intend to examine further environmental standards as incentivc for innovation and for the development of clean, cost-effective, and low-resource technology as well as promotion of international trade in low-pollution products, low-pollution industrial plants, and other environmental protection technologies."
Equally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) recommended in its report to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987:
"UNEP should be the principal source on environmental data, assessment, reporting, and related support for environmental management as well as the principal advocate and agent for change and cooperation on critical environment and natural protection issues. The major priorities and functions of UNEP should be:

These recommcndations culminated in the adoption by UNEP's Governing Council on June 19th, 1987, of decision No. GC. 14/24, entitled "Improvement and Harmonization of Environmental Measurement". This devision noted the importance and urgency of enhancing the availability of internationally compatible environmental data and recognized the need for strengthening further international cooperation on improving the acquisition, exchange and harmonized interpretation of such data in order to facilitate harmonized policy actions on environmental protection.

Following the UNEP decision, a meeting of experts on 'Improvement and Harmonization of Environmental Measurement' was convened in December 1987 in Munich. The Expert Group recognized that in practice harmonization work must be performed within specialized and specific programmes and projects. But they considered that in order to realize the aims of the Economic Summit and UNEP decisions it would be necessary to establish a group spevifically designed to coordinate and promote harmonization programmes, to recognize areas where the need is greatest, and to act as a catalyst in the setting up of new harmonization projects. With the substantial support of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany this group, the HEM (Harmonization of Environmental Measurement), was established in August l989 in Munich. The estabishment of this group is a major step towards achieving the long-term goal of international and interdisciplinary harmonization of environmental measurement.

Mission Statement
The Mission of the Harmonization of Environmental Measurement (HEM) Project is to promote the improved Collection and Management of Data and thereby to enhance the Quality and Compatibility of Information on the State of the Fnvironment Worldwide

The Objectives (Long-Term Goals) of  HEM

Three main areas of harmonization are to be tackled:

Planned Activities

Access to appropriate information is a basic requisite for successful functioning of the HEM project. Thus the development of an Information System is one of HEM's first priorities. The basic concept for the Information System is shown in Fig 1.

The activities connected with this system can be divided broadly into three, closely related and more or less interdependent, parts. The aim is to provide the basis for (and then to promote) "horizontal" harmonization of environmental measurement, i. e. harmonization between different programmes and between different fields at an international level. "Vertical" harmonization, i. e. at different levels of data within the same programme, is in m><t rnrr<: SIreSdv well ectahliched

Establishment of a meta-database

In order to approach the long-term goals it is necessary first to know:

In other words HEM needs a system which can provide facts and figures on what information is available on the state of the environment, where, and in what quality. A meta-database will be established containing information about:
  The meta-database is intended to serve both as a source of information for HEM's activities, and as a key reference source for others working in the field. Providing access to this information is one of HEM's basic tasks. The meta-database will be a source of information on what data is available, where, and the mennc of access to it rather than an actual data bank.

Fig 1.
Development of environmental classification schemes

In order to improve the quality and management of environmcntal data worldwide, it is necessary to combine and co-ordinate information from different environmental monitoring and research programmes. This rcquires, that the classifivation systems used be compatible. Currently, a vast number of different classifivation systems exist for the various environmental mediab varying from dicipline to discipline. There is no easy source of information on the classification systems in use, or on their equivalence and/or compatibility, and no list of generally recommended geo-ecological classification systems which would allow easy and meaningful combination of data  from different sources.

As a first step HEM intends to define the problem by compiling a catalogue of the classification systems used in relevant environmental areas world-wide. In the long-different quality categories, enabling meaningful term HEM intends to use this information to identify areas of need and to promote programmes leading to internationally co-ordinated and accepted classification systems following general guidelines.

Development of strategies for quality control
Comparable and reliable data quality is a basic Environmental specimen banking has a special, and prerequisite for obtaining consistent and meaningful information on the state of the global environment. Thus assurance and control of the quality of data being used is essential.

As a first step, information about the level, assurance, and control of data quality in different programmes and databases will be included in the meta-database. In the longer-term it will be necessary to obtain some consensus on data quality. One approach could be to set minimum standards of quality control and to introduce some form of "Quality Guarantee" on sources of data to show that they maintain these standards. Data could be classified in different quality categories, enabeling meaningful combination of data with the same quality standard. HEM intends to help in developing such standards in close contact with international organizations such as ISO, CEN and others.

Environmental spesimen banking (ESB)
Environmental spesimen banking has a special, and potentially immensely valuable role to play in the harmonization of environmental measurement. It offers a very practical approach to solving the problems of quality control and assurance - by providing standard specimens for tests in different laboratories, or in the same laboratory at different times. Equally specimen banks, containing a well-defined spectrum of representative samples from all parts of a single ecosystem, offer an ideal small-scale system for the development of practical classification schemes. The principal task of a specimen bank is to provide representative samples of environmental media for further studies, enabling, for example, retrospective investigation of the presence of factors which only later become recognized, or measurements with new and more refined techniques. At the same time, however, a specimen bank is an ideal source of "base-line values", important for the assessment of collected data.
Developing countries in particular are making an increasing contribution to the regional and global dispersal of toxic chemicals. During the early stages of industrial development these countries often lack the financial and technical capacity to adequately assess or control sources of potentially toxic chemicals. During the next few decades many of the developing countries will develop industries and an increasingly intensive agriculture, but only relatively limited resources can be diverted to health, environmental assessment, or pollution control. Health and ecologival problems will emerge, but by that time it is hoped that improved economies and technical capabilities will be able to determine what chemicals were introduced in the past. Creation of well-defined ESB's in these countries would allow both retrospective analyses of diverse factors, and provide an easy basis for international cooperation in the investigation of specific problems.

The full potential of ESB can only be fully realised if the samples banks contain are directly comparable, i. e. if they are established and maintained according to well-defined guidelines. In orther words not only can ESB's be extremely useful as a practical approach to a number of aspects of harmonization of environmental measurement, they themselves also require harmonization.

At present ESB is only conducted in a few countries such as the USA, FRG, CDN, S, and SF, and most of these cooperate closely with each other. Thus, there is a very good chance for developing internationally accepted and acknowledged guidelines for the establishment and management of ESB enabling maximum use of their resources in years to come. HEM will act as a centre for promoting the development and application of such guidelines working in close co-operation with UNEP's IRPTC (International Register for Potential Toxic Chemicals).

The HEM Project provides a potentially valuable means of working towards genuine harmonization of environmental measurement in an international, cross-discipline and multi-programme framework. As an independent group working in close contact with a wide-variety of international and national agencies in the field of environmental measurement, it will be in a position both to summarize information on sources, quality and classification of environmental data, to identify areas of need for improved data harmonization, to promote the development of internationally accepted guidelines and to ensure harmonization between different environmental programmes. Considerable savings can be expected as a result of reduced duplication of effort and maximising the use of data resources.

Success, however, will depend on the support and cooperation of all those working in the field of environmental measurement. The importance of harmonization of environmental measurement has been clearly recognized in the Federal Republic of Germany for some years and is reflected in the recommendations of the "Sachverständigen Rat für Umweltfragen" (SRU), The Council of Environmental Advisors. The Federal Government of Germany has given strong support to the project since its inception and it is to be hoped that other countries will soon follow their example.

We thank Gerda Beckers, M.A. and Li-Shin Tsai-Köster, M.A., both HEM staff members, the GEMS staff, and officials and scientists in and outside Germany too many to mention here, for preparation of this work and discussions on the HEM programme.


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please see also GeoJournal 26.3 323-334, 1992 (March)     Access and Assimilation
Pivotal Environmental Information Challenges -  Linking, Archiving, and Exploiting Multi-Lingual and  Multi-Scale Environmental Information Repositories

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