Personal Uses of Environmental Data

What can you actually do personally with environmental big data as a private scientist? As a curious person?
Gary Wolf asked in his breakout co-hosted by Carlos Ouguin, of all of these kinds of big data that are available or will be available about our world, what’s meaningful for people like us (quantified selves)? How is the quantified world useful to the quantified self?
This is a post about the first QS Conference  this past weekend.  I am, however, swamped, this is just my musings from yesterday, my nominal day off.

I found I had a curiously hard time answering his call (and not only because the acoustics in that breakout area were so bad I got a headache from straining to hear a fraction of what was said).  And why? Upon reflection I’ve actually spent a markedly above average amount of time thinking about that very question, though not necessarily from Gary’s strict lens of quantification.  Even one of his examples, knowing the wildlife in your home biome exhaustively, hinged on being able to identify any given spider in his house, not how many spiders there were and how many total spider species thrive in residential areas in the Berkeley Hills. But numbers aside, there are only so many things we can do as individuals with the vasty seas of environmental data (categories of data brainstormed throughout the session included: air, water and soil quality; buildings and their component materials; infrastructure; plants and animals; diseases, both symptoms and organism flows; geotectonic and electromagnetic; solar and cosmic; objects like goods and waste flows; information events; social phenomena.)

Let’s go back to Gary’s original question, how is any of that meaningful to individual (self-quantifying) people (and perhaps their social networks)?

Uh, okay.  You can either find meaning in the having and playing with data (which I think some of the conferences participants genuinely do), or you can put them to work to inform and motivate actions.  So, what kinds of actionable behaviors could possibly be reasonable responses to big environmental data? I started making a list (which is not exhaustive by any means):

—Avoiding things or places which data reveals are risky
—Seeking out things or places which data reveals are beneficial
—Change behaviors when passing through places (e.g. preparing yourself differently, taking a specific route like a trail, not littering, etc)
—Traverse places with more awareness and knowledge to create a more meaningful relationship with the (natural) world. (which, I would argue, would better be achieved by qualitative tools like field guides or photography)
—Use data as leverage to provoke larger entities to change their behaviors (like government watchdogs, regulatory bodies, corporations)
—Contribute to data collection efforts (e.g. citizen science or participatory monitoring)
—Benchmark benefits of contributing to common good
—Substantiate a focal point for (new or old) community connection
—Reveal intractable structural problems

One of these things is not like the other ones.  When intractable structural problems are revealed, people come face to face with the limits of their own agency, which sucks.  The scope of reasonable actions for individuals gets really complicated.  For example, if you gain knowledge that you should avoid places, but don’t have the ability to do so, your knowledge can be harmful to your well-being.  Or, the very fact of unequal access to such data could compound other fault lines of inequality.

There was some debate and murkiness around whether we were discussing access to raw datasets, the contributions of laypeople to data collection, or accessing filtered and analyzed data from public health, civic,  and global civic entities.  (Joshua Kauffman of REGIONAL piped up to throw the UN Global Pulse into the mix, which is a great example of the professional synthesis of huge datasets to produce timely analyses of critically important geopolitical meaning. But what does an individual do with that?)  To take one f my favorite citizen science examples, PEIR, the behavior changing factors are not the reams of data about personal mobility or air quality metrics, but the MAP where you see your life threaded into the world, and the Facebook widget that shows your impact and the world’s impact on you in a simple parallel bar graph.  Translated, visualized, and embedded in a social context.

This is not a trivial point.  Quantitative data is subject to incredible change or distortion based on presentation format, credibility of presenter, and intended use.  And several times in the course of these several days, it was pointed out that the act of OBSERVATION and translating data streams into clear DECISION POINTS were what created change, not the quantification itself. As a private citizen, I can look at the well-being index of my overfunded little town and see that we have fabulous parks with a good per captia ratio, and I should use them.  Or, I can go to the park, stick my toes in the grass and notice that I feel pretty good right about then.

To summarize my conclusion not only from this session but from the whole conference, what is really better accomplished measurement, and what is best accomplished with mindfulness, and when do you really need both?

I am not discounting measurement, or quantified anything.  But I do have a deeply ambivalent relationship with the questions of focus, access, and equality that the whole endeavor raises.

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