Our Wealth of Data and Its Wasted Potential

Data, data everywhere, where it goes…does anybody care?

Computer data
Information about our surrounding environment, collectively referred to as “data,” is collected on a daily basis today more than any previous point in history. Every industry, for its own respective purposes, scientifically collects data to make informed decisions. Technologies such as global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) now allow us to organize that data spatially and temporally. ESRI leads the industry in mapping software with broad applications but the data has to be supplied by the user. All of this information is considered “big data” because it is compiled into huge datasets. However, our end result is often small, a concept well discussed in this article. The ultimate application of all of this information seems limitless.

If every industry is busy collecting data, where does it all go? Unfortunately, because this data is often collected independently, the organization often retains the information internally. Sometimes this is for legal reasons, but in many cases it’s simply because there is no common method to share such a large amount of data. In addition, sometimes the method in which a dataset was collected makes it incompatible with other datasets. Whatever the reason, big data isn’t being used to its full potential.

It’s now becoming apparent how the data collected for one industry can be incredibly useful for another industry. The computing and mapping mogul Google is at the forefront of the geospatial data collection movement and understands how vastly applicable real-time images of the world can be. While the public can enjoy virtually traveling the world and exploring the oceans, the imagery is extremely useful for ecologists and biologists as well. Google Earth has revolutionized the science world by providing the ability to map human diseases and pretty much anything else you can imagine. A recent article discusses how Google Street View could help researchers track and fight invasive species over the internet. As opposed to these scientists re-collecting data themselves, they are able to circumvent this tremendous effort by capitalizing on what’s already been collected by Google. The same scenario may be true of big data collected by other research giants like USDA, USGS, Facebook, USFWS and NOAA, just to name a few. Unfortunately, today redundant efforts are probably common because we have no centralized system for logging what data exists.

Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Knowledge is power,” and data is the essence of knowledge. If we, as a society, could facilitate access to non-sensitive data, imagine the possibilities of linking economic data with agricultural data with weather and soil quality data and property value data…the list goes on. Now imagine being able to express it on a map over time. Society has developed amazing technological methods to collect and analyze data. The next step is to create technology that can unify this information to reach its full potential.

Several programs are being developed which synthesize datasets from numerous sources for a singular purpose. One such program which links a myriad of data collected on different scales such as soil, weather, drainage, geographic and plant data for agricultural use is the Virginia Viticulture Sustainability Investigative Tool (VVSIT). This tool serves as an example of how we can use unified datasets to optimize land use, taking modern-day agriculture a step further by “smart placement” of plants in regions where they can grow best and yield the most efficient profit. The VVSIT can assist in achieving reasonably grown crops and is perhaps the first widely used example of prescriptive software. Prescriptive software can generate a custom management plan based on the unique qualities of a particular property. To learn more, explore the VVSIT program or try out our demonstration program SoilsmartRx, the prescriptive software tool for home gardeners.

Update: The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is an example of a non-governmental organization which has been amassing big data for decades, actively documenting details about species and their habitat in databases, a potentially hugely valuable untapped resource. Data is out there, we just have to share it and link it together.   – October 29, 2013

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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