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Finding Ways to Make ‘Big Data’ Relevant and Accessible

July 2014

When tackling Delta issues, it’s apparent the science component includes a lot of data. But, making that data available to others who really need it in a concise and understandable form is often a challenge. That challenge was addressed in length at the Environmental Data Summit 2014.

Dr. Rainer Hoenicke, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Deputy Executive Officer for Science, is one among many interagency scholars who demonstrated during the Data Summit the advantages of easily gathering and accessing data.

“We wanted to reach out and explore what tools and technology are out there to integrate data from all these different silos of people and organizations,” said Hoenicke. “We want to break down those silos to make it easier for people to exchange data, to access them from the different sources, and to create a federation of distributed databases that can all speak to each other.”

The Summit, held June 5-6, 2014 in Davis and Sacramento, featured a diverse group of speakers versed both nationally and internationally in the dissemination and analysis of complicated materials. Included were:

Jennifer Schopf, Ph.D., director of international networking/Indiana University.
Tyler Erickson, senior developer advocate, Google Earth Engine
Paul Ramsey, a geospatial architect and advisor to Fortune 500 firms
Patricia Cruse, a digital preservation pioneer, U.C. Curation Center
David McConville, creative director, Worldviews Network

On the first day, the speakers discussed how it’s possible to build on existing and emerging data management systems to allow the Delta’s environmental and project data to be easily accessed and processed from diverse computer systems housed in public agencies, academic, non-profit, and private institutions as well as on “citizen-scientist” desktops.

On the second day, the research participants were involved in working sessions. These smaller groups focused on four discussion topics: Data Integration, Business Models, Data Presentation Tools, and Data Libraries. Six common themes were among their conclusions:

• Data users, their technical and data needs, and their desired output are diverse.
• Sustained funding and support of institutions and governments are critical to ensure continuity and information reliability.
• New data scientists/librarians are needed to provide outreach, integration and information management services.
• Data integration and sustained community cooperation will reduce redundancy of regulatory monitoring and scientific data generation.
• Minimum data standards and open data formats help facilitate information exchange through low-cost technologies and commonly available resources.
• The California Digital Library should be a central component moving forward.

Ultimately, Hoenicke hopes these conclusions from the Summit will lead to more efficient ways of accessing and integrating data from disparate sources – some of which are currently obscure. He says all too often researchers studying the Delta do not have access to the previous work of others. Thus, they end up “reinventing the wheel” when trying to reach conclusions. This happens in part, he says, because data management and exchange mechanisms within the local science community are just in their infancy stage. Why?

“They’re expensive to build, and everybody thinks it happens automatically without any resources,” said Hoenicke. “At the Summit we explored how to make upgrades to our current infrastructure and to make the infrastructure sustainable so that we don’t have these peaks and troughs of our data management where we stand still for a long time, because we don’t have the money or the people to dedicate to the project while the technology evolves.”

With those mechanisms in place, Hoenicke believes a vast reservoir of data can be tapped for more integrated assessments. The aggregated information can then be synthesized into manageable components that busy decision-makers, looking for easily digestible material, can use to reach conclusions.

“That’s another theme we explored at the Summit, developing tools to make data accessible to people who don’t have the time to wrap their minds around the individual data points,” said Hoenicke. “They want to know what the data mean so that they can be used to simulate different kinds of alternatives or management options.”

The types of data collected will focus on the State’s coequal goals: water supply reliability for Californians and the restoration of the Delta ecosystem. Hoenicke says Summit participants were able to both hear about and share methods of accessing data that are the foundation of management decisions designed to achieve the coequal goals appropriately and in the most effective way. At the end of the day, he says, the public needs to know if investments in ecosystem restoration, water supply reliability enhancements, and protecting and enhancing the unique values of the Delta as an evolving place are paying off.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and measurement involves the collection of data,” said Hoenicke. “For instance, if you invest in restoration projects, you want to be sure you can measure the outcomes at the end so you can let the taxpayer know you achieved at least some of the desired outcomes you expected to achieve. To do that requires collecting data so the data can tell the story.”

The Environmental Data Summit 2014 was organized by the Council’s Delta Science Program in close collaboration with the science community that generates and transforms data into information to be used in decision-making. With the workshop concluded, Hoenicke says a white paper will now be generated. It will serve as a road map or “joint work plan” showing how the various organizations will be working together to implement the paper’s recommendations.

“This won’t be a report that sits on somebody’s shelf,” said Hoenicke. “We’re going to keep track of it so we can see if the data management infrastructure is in place to do adaptive management, because we can’t do adaptive management without data, right?”

If you missed the Data Summit, a recording of the first day’s webcast, which included the guest speakers, can be viewed by clicking here. The second day’s webcast, which included the conclusions of the working sessions, can be viewed by clicking here.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)