How data management is improving environmental stewardship

The volume of data across many industries – healthcare, banking, media, education, manufacturing as some examples – is skyrocketing in size and scope. Yet, the potential of what we could do over time from the use of environmental data appears less understood by the wider public.

What could be tracked for the environment is beyond our imagination

All the many factors that play out in our environment are so beyond our human comprehension. As a comparison, you may have heard of the warehouses of NOAA supercomputers that are used to forecast our weather. Each of these supercomputers store petabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) of data and operate at petaflops of calculations per second! We can’t even begin to imagine this level of processing power. Yet, our “weather” is but the short-term condition of our climate – and our climate is just one sub-component affecting the environment. Weather lasts minutes to months. But changes to the environment, like the “butterfly effect” analogy, even if perceived as miniscule, could last centuries. 
There’s so much environmental data that could be tracked that it’s daunting! Yet, we believe that solid, important foundational data is now available, better enabling environmental agencies and the public to protect, improve and restore our environment.

What agencies need is improved  data technology so that the most relevant, centralized and well-defined information is available for clearer insights, so that the best targeted actions can be taken.

Improved data management is a catalyst for strong environment stewardship

Imagine your agency receives a request to approve the building of a new industrial facility that will discharge its wastewater into a river. The plant’s carefully planned emissions are reported to fall within expected pollutant guidelines. Is it straightforward to approve the permit? Perhaps, perhaps not. What if, along this same river, there happens to be 100 existing facilities? Your agency would want to explore the emissions data from all 100 facilities using data from years of monitoring. Also, prior to a permitting decision, the agency would want to determine the maximum amount this plant could safely emit so that the total carrying capacity of the river is never exceeded. What if some of these plants are located in other states across from this river? Now, assessing the full environmental impact requires shared data measurements and methodologies across multiple agencies. By rolling up data from 100 plants regardless of any political boundaries, your agency can better assess a potential plant’s permit request.

So, the impact on the environment is not just from one source of data. Our actions accumulate over time. We need to go “beyond the trees and see the forest” and today’s data technologies can help us get there.

With strong data management, we can have better visibility into each decision made – for the protection or improvement of land, water, air and health.

Unfortunately, within the limited resources of environmental state agencies, too many cumbersome processes and limited reports are still a reality. But improvements towards stronger data management and processes are underway. At Windsor, we are aware of these improvements because we develop data management systems for environmental state agencies – and we have seen a huge transformation in agencies over our last 25 years as a company. 

Environmental  data management success story

One example of strong data management is this very successful public website by the California Environmental Protection Agency. This site provides a more holistic view into the regulated environmental activities by location, all by using one search tool. (We know this site well as it includes our community engagement platform called nSITE Explorer.)

How is the website used? Let’s say you live near a facility and want to learn about this facility from an environmental standpoint – such as you’d like to know its status for hazardous waste, cleanup activities, any contaminated surface water or groundwater, or known toxic materials. So instead of calling up the state agency for information, now you can access quick answers using this search tool. This site not only gives the public easier access to information, it also frees up agency employees from public inquiries and enables them to focus more on improving and protecting the environment. It also pressures facility owners and managers to be transparent and stronger stewards for the environment.

The above map shows 400,000 regulated sites in Michigan which can be publicly reviewed through Windsor’s Site Explorer tool available here.

Strong data management automates critical environmental agency information tasks

An important component of strong data management starts at the beginning; automating the data collection and data review. In contrast, today, many state agencies still struggle with manual processes. For example, sometimes permit applications or reports are filled out on a PDF and emailed to an agency. That email is reviewed and forwarded to agency stakeholders. This type of process hinders productivity and, with email, it’s too easy for things to get stuck or lost. In contrast, when reports or applications are filled out on a website that is connected to a data management platform, many workflows can be automated. We work with agencies to streamline their processes so that submissions, materials, or key documents are never lost and workflows or decision-making can proceed through the agency with ease. 

Strong data management also requires a platform with a flexible architecture as things change. In contrast, many environmental agencies still use old homegrown systems that are difficult to maintain and change. It’s time for these older systems to be deprecated and the data to be moved onto a more powerful architecture.  

In conclusion, when an agency has modern, flexible and smart information management and workflow automation systems, it gives them the ability to focus on their core mission, whether it includes following up on non-compliant facilities, getting into the field for needed inspections or advocating and enforcing regulations. That’s the stewardship they want to do.

Photo above shows some Portland team members recently playing online golf after work.

About Windsor Solutions

Over the last 25 years, we have emerged as the leader in private industry through helping environmental agencies in every state. All environmental agencies have unlimited environmental challenges but with limited resources. We do what we can to help simplify and streamline their work while giving them better data tools so they act with better visibility and precision. 

If you’d like to comment on this blog or contact us, we’d love to hear from you.

About Windsor Solutions

Through our technology, we simplify the work of state agencies so they can better advocate for the environment.

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