I recently went in search of water quality data related to the chemical spill near Charleston West Virginia. As of today, 1/20/2014, there are serious questions being raised about the safety of the water and what chemical information is actually being used to communicate toxicity. After reading this…I opened the ol’ iPad and jumped on the internet. I am always curious about the water resources connected with these events. Google returned a USGS WV Water Center as the first hit, with real-time data, stream flow, and water quality data all readily available in a couple of clicks. A USEPA web page showed up in the Google search. There is even a Wikipedia page that has been created about the spill. I expected this, but I also know better.
I know for a fact that there is more information that is collected, but it’s just not made available.
What about the state, regional, and local/municipal data? I know there must be more historical information for the Elk River in West Virginia. What about the information being used to determine drinking water safety? What are the chemicals in crude-MHCM? I started thinking about my own professional experiences with trying to find relevant and timely data related to a river, creek, stream, lake, or reservoir. What about the toxicity information related to the spilled chemical, and the compounds that result from the expected fate and transport of these chemicals? I had lots of questions, but my search was blocked by the current state of data sharing and storage: disconnected databases, minimal use of tags, and incomplete/missing information.
Turns out that there is a massive amount of water quality data on the internet, but very little of it is connected in a way that allows for quick, relevant summaries and analysis. Furthermore, the information that is available still needs to be aggregated and reformatted. The bottom line is the current state of water resource data shared on the internet does not allow for data to be used for decision making in times of immediate need. In the case of this spill, this data limitation has left the population in around Charleston, West Virginia (and downstream…) in a state of fear about the water they rely on every day, not to mention the long term damage that has been done to the ecosystem.
So what’s the problem?
It’s very short-sighted of me to write about what is wrong and not point to what I think could be made right. First and foremost, as water resource professionals, we need to think about the data beyond the purpose for which it is collected. In an article by Adam Jacobs of 101data Inc. entitled “The Pathologies of Big Data”, Mr. Jacobs makes a very poignant conclusion: “…big data should be defined at any point in time as ‘data whose size forces us to look beyond the tried-and-true methods that are prevalent at that time’. ” Looking beyond traditional RDBMS systems and looking at data (big data) beyond its intended purpose has to become part of our mindset as data stewards and water resource managers if the true power of this information is to be realized. Secondly, the amount of sensors used in water resources and a number of other “implicit” sensors (cell, phones, GPS, internet search activity (Magoulas, R., 2009)) necessitate the definitive need to think differently, very differently, about how we manage the worlds water resources data.
As Roger Magoulas et al, states: “Bringing disparate data sources together can provide context and deeper insights than what’s available from the data in any one organization.”
So the next time you’re finalizing your data, discrete or time series, think about what your data may mean to someone else in the event of an emergency, research project, or watershed analysis. Consider sharing your data through data exchanges and local, regional, and global networks of water resources data. Consider publishing your data in a way that makes it available to the widest possible audience.
“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.”- Mark Twain
See you on the water!
Photo Credit: Site of Charleston, WV Chemical Spill – On January 9, 2014 – Freedom Industries spilled approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (a chemical used in coal processing) into the Elk River Just upstream from American Water’s drinking water intake that serves 300,000 people. The next day Appalachian Voices staff went out on the Elk River in Charleston, WV to see the site for ourselves and to collect water samples for analysis. Photo By: Eric Chance