I have just returned from a trip to India where I provided training to a group of hydrologists and water resource managers from the United Nations and from the Afghanistan Ministry of Energy and Water.
This trip was enlightening, challenging, and perspective changing.
I always thought of my work in the Arctic with Water Survey of Canada as some of the most challenging field work there was. The elements, isolation, and environment were unforgiving, but I never gave much thought to my office environment, network security, building security, or data storage. I, like most of my co-workers, complained about key fobs and too many passwords to remember, but we never had to think or worry about security. We gave our data away for free on the web.
Who would want to steal or destroy my data? On my trip I learned this was a sheltered view that I was privileged to have.
Chatting with the training group in India quickly opened my eyes to things I never had to think about. We talked about their historical water records, which spans from around 1960 to 1980 and then 2007 to the present.
There is a data gap from 1980 to 2007 that is larger than their entire historical water record!
The dates tell quite a story if you know anything about the history of Afghanistan. Russia invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Obviously, water monitoring is not a priority when fighting an occupation. This was followed by civil wars, Taliban rule, and then the U.S. came after September 11th, 2001.
Fast-forward to 2007. Development funds became available to help rebuild the country, but projects for agriculture, power generation, and infrastructure re-building all need water data. The Ministry of Energy and Water has started to rebuild its network and today it has 125 Automatic Hydrological Stations including 43 Cable ways, 26 Automatic Weather Stations, and 30 Automatic Snow Survey Stations. I asked them how safe Afghanistan is and how challenging their fieldwork is.
They modestly replied that some stations have “security concerns.”
When I think of “security concerns” with a station I think of vandals, but this is not what they were referring to and my perspective shifted abruptly. I asked about their historical records – this is where my perspective got turned upside down.
They have “water books” for 1960-1980.
These are the annual publications of water record, but much of the supporting data was destroyed between 1980 and 2007. That means no staff gauge readings, no measurement data, and no field visit reports. The published data can never be re-visited; all that work is lost and preserved only by the annual summary reports.
Think about that, all the effort, time, and money that went into that data collection is gone.
Now think about your data. How much do you know about your data storage and back-up, both digital and hard copies? How often is your database backed-up? Where is it backed-up? How do you store your hard copies? Is all your data in your database? What would happen if there was a fire, flood, earthquake, etc.? Would all your data survive including hard copies? If you have ever stood under a bridge in a rainstorm to collect a single data point or managed the budget for field programs, you know how important that data is.
Today we have the ability to capture environmental data digitally through either digital collection or by scanning hard copies and storing them digitally.
Older databases and systems couldn’t manage metadata such as scanned sheets and pictures – these ended up being stored in different locations from time-series data. What if you stored all your data, metadata included, in a central database accessible to everyone within your organization? What if all that data and metadata was backed-up off-site in one or more locations? These locations could be anywhere: in a different building, country, in the cloud, or all three. Central data entry and storage of all your data and metadata along with proper back-up procedures provides security and ensures that your data will survive for the long term.
Modern data management systems can protect valuable environmental data over the life of the data.
That provides piece of mind. It was a privilege to provide AQUARIUS training to the water professionals with the United Nations and the Afghanistan Ministry of Energy and Water, knowing that accurate and timely water data will be safe and available for generations to come.