Turning Water Data into Water Wisdom
By Teri Floyd
I dig data. Data, measurements, information — they comfort me. I think of data sets as stable rocks on which to build. Clever applications on my computer transform data into information. They find it, sort it, tease it, model it and use it. I distill information from the data to inform decisions, track outcomes, observe change, model the future and ask what-if questions.
I don’t just like data, I need it. A common belief that seems ubiquitous today is that we can guess based on commonly accepted knowledge, that we can wing it based on intuition. This approach is reinforced every time we are forced to decide NOW and the data is nowhere to be found or exists only as a big box of squiggles rather than something digested, analyzed and usable.
Did you see the 2008 recession coming in 2007? Did common knowledge at the time predict it? I saw it coming and helped to move my company away from certain types of projects: We kept all our staff and stayed in the black. My “intuition” was based on observable data, distilled into information. Because the data were not readily available and contradicted accepted knowledge, my actions looked like a hunch. But it was an informed hunch built on a stable base of big rocks.
You Need Data
If the summer is hot and dry, will we have a drought that requires early rationing? To find out in Seattle, we measure snow-pack data; in western Kansas, the Oglala aquifer; in Florida, the groundwater table — all are data that we place into models to understand what is happening and to make decisions based on the results. A model is science written in mathematical terms — and calibrated models inform.
We all need tools to make sense of the data. As an example: We measure the returning salmon runs every year, though we are just beginning to understand what really affects the numbers. What if we spend all our salmon-recovery money on the wrong things? We need the data, models and visualization tools to let us know if we are asking the right questions to build solutions that work and are sustainable. To ensure our salmon recovery, we need to understand the systems; to understand the systems, we must ask and answer real questions with real information; to generate real information we need data, data tools and good plans. Data is the beginning of our understanding.
I like data — and I really like what I can do with it.
In future PureBlue articles, we will explore data sources and data tools. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas, favorite data tools, your stories and questions. Please join us in a conversation about making the most of data and getting even better at what we can do with it.
Next post: Water Data into Water Revenue
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