Big Data Environmentalism

“In God we trust. All others must bring data.”

That’s what American Statistician William Edwards Deming said more than 50 ago. He must have known what was coming.

Today, humans create 2.5 quintillion new bytes of data every single day. If each byte were a penny, that’s enough pennies to completely cover the surface of the Earth five times over. Every single day.

“Big data?” More like colossal, immense, humongous data.

Yet while the tools – and certainly the information – are there, using data and analytics in the environmental world is like the invention of the chronometer for calculating longitude on a ship.

The chronometer was developed in the early eighteenth century yet not put into widespread use for another 40 years because of politics and an unwillingness to change. That’s four decades of losing lives at sea when the technology already existed to prevent such tragedies.

In the business world, data has been steering the ship for decades. More than 73 percent of companies use data to increase revenue. Some 84 percent of executives use data to help them make better decisions.

Isn’t it time to bring conservation into the 21st century?

In the same way that businesses use data and analytics to identify opportunities, prioritize efforts, refine methods, and measure progress, data and analytics can improve watersheds.

Take for instance when the Sonoma County Water Agency teamed up with IBM to develop a water management system based on real-time information. The agency now receives information on water usage and quality, weather and climate, so that it can allocate water more effectively. And not surprisingly, the county has reduced its water resources at a time when California needs every drop.

In the same way information helps a business decide where to focus its sales efforts, data and analytics can pinpoint the best places for restoration. An example from my own organization:

The Freshwater Trust found that by combining aerial images with existing data, we can now identify specific conservation projects on specific plots of land that are going to go the furthest toward restoring our rivers and streams. We’ve also developed an app that allows us to better gather critical data on our projects in the field, ensuring that the actions we took are having the intended positive outcomes.

And scientists have begun to quantify the benefits of nature itself. With better data on how much shade a tree produces on a nearby waterway, or how many tons of nitrogen runoff can be absorbed by an acre of native trees and shrubs, we can essentially x-ray nature.

In 2011, Medford, Oregon, faced a problem common for cities nationwide. Responsible for treating sewage from nearly 200,000 people, the city’s wastewater treatment plant discharges an average of 17 million gallons of clean, but at times too warm, water to the Rogue River every day.

To comply with the Clean Water Act, the city had to offset the impact of its warm-water discharge by roughly 300 million kilocalories per day. Because we were able to model the amount of shade a tree can produce, The Freshwater Trust was able to offer a natural way of obtaining compliance – a way that would save taxpayers more than $8 million.

There are examples of data working for the benefit of the environment. Yet the immutable truth?

More often than not, data is not at the helm of environmental decision-making. After all, as I write, more than half our nation’s waterways are impaired.

If we needed evidence to prove the way we’re managing our water resources isn’t working, we need not look far. So perhaps the adage, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” should actually be a call to action for us working in this field.

Let’s move conservation from 1.0 to 2.0, from intention toward innovation, from process to precision, from well-meaning measures to hard-and-fast measurement.

It’s time to bring conservation into the 21st century.


j-whitworthJoe Whitworth has been responsible for strategic direction of The Freshwater Trust for more than a decade, growing the organization’s budget tenfold during that time. He is focused on the next generation of conservation tools at the intersection of technology and finance to get results on the ground. In addition to formal advisory roles in B Corp, foundation and government settings, he is a patented inventor, author of the book “Quantified: Redefining Conservation for the Next Economy” published by Island Press, and has served as founding board chair of the Council for Responsible Sport. Joe has also served as a guest lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Lewis & Clark College with an emphasis in natural resources and water law.

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