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Why Data About Data Matters

2008 May 14

photo of field gear scattered around

About the author: Molly O’Neill, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Environmental Information and Chief Information Officer.

In my first job after college, I was an environmental biologist/analyst. I spent some of that time taking surface water, sediment, groundwater, soil, and biological samples in the field. Of course, I followed the EPA standard sampling procedures and believe me they are quite extensive – 14-hour days were common and much of that time was to ensure that the quality of the sample was not compromised. There is a lot of documentation that goes along with each sample taken. After those long days in the field, I used to think, does all this documentation really make a difference?

Last week I participated in a listening session with a stakeholder group as part of the National Dialogue for Access to Environmental Information. One of the important themes that kept coming up during the discussion was the necessity to have access to quality data. This means that the data sample and results are not compromised and that the information about the data sample is not lost or forgotten along the way. For example, a community may take water samples at a local beach for a specific place and time, and then post the results to a website. These results are then consumed by other interested parties and made available to the public in a variety of ways. The data about the data, or “metadata”, doesn’t always convey with the data set and therefore, secondary users of this data may draw the wrong conclusions. In this case, without the time/place data with the sample an assumption that a local beach is currently contaminated may not be accurate.

Along that same theme, there was concern that while new mapping tools allow almost anyone to grab data sets (including some of EPA’s) and plot them on a map, combining data sets doesn’t always make sense. Data Set A + Data Set B doesn’t necessarily = Conclusion C. These are good cautions and the takeaway for me was that while providing access is good, we need to ensure that access to the metadata is equally as important. We also need invest in describing the data set and why it is collected.

Getting back to my first job and the question about whether the documentation with a sample is important, you bet the answer is yes! If you have comments on how we might enhance access to environmental information, please checkout our National Dialogue web site.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Dana Brown permalink
    May 17, 2008

    YEs, data does matter, however the EPA ORD are doing “research” on BURNING and GRINDING asbestos containing houses in St. Bernard’s Parish in Lousiana. Their data claim is that this is no worse than a “1 in 1,000,000,000″ excess cancer risk, ignoring the fact that in the United States the asbestos cancer risk is already in the 1 in 10,000 level, and not with “Alternative Processes”. (Ignoring the issue of asbestosis deaths, lead poisoning cases, and the Lung and Meslthelioma undercount of incidence.)

    This is the exact same crowd involved with the controversial “Alternative Asbestos Control Method” that uses “air sampling data” collected at non-detect levels to establish “Statistical equivelancy” to traditional and REQUIRED NESHAP practices. Additinally, this “research” is only aimed at the asbestos issue, but puttting a pre-1978 house in a grinder will make the Lead Based Paint pulverized and highly likely to “methylize” and become mobile in soil chemistry in acidid or akaline soils.

    Here is the entire startling fiasco. This is clearly why EPA is looked at as a goofy agancy. All this BS about “Greenservations”, riding a bicycle to work, ad naeseun, but ignoring the reality that if applied to the 260,000 house in NO Area, and 4 to a house, a rate of 1 in 10,000 increased risk of cancer results in 104 cancers. Asbestos cancers cost about $1,00,000 per case for Mesothelioma and Lung Caner. This study ignores the asbestosis and lead poisoning effects as well.

    Simply put, is EPA off it’s collective rocker? Promoting the changing to CFLs, and biking to work, but ignoring real and immediate public health risks? IS this sound Public Health and Environmental Protection Policy???

    Expediency to “rebuild New Orleans” is not a good thing if it results in elevated cases of lead poisoning and asbestos related diseases and deaths. Those costs are regularly ignored by the EPA ORD. Remember this is the group in the “National Risk Management Research Laboratory”. IT seems as if their strategy to “manage risk” with asbestos is to ignore the costs, and trends with the diseases!

    WAKE UP EPA, for God’s sake!

  2. Dana Brown permalink
    May 17, 2008

    Forgot the link…. (I can’t believe they actually put this in print)
    here it is:

    http://www.epa.gov/region6/6xa/burn_and_grind_pilot.htm

    Same people involved as the AACM “research”

    Cadmus, Inc.
    The Louis Berger Group
    EEG
    EPA Region 6

    Why are these people getting funded over and over again for dubious research?

  3. M. Borman permalink
    May 19, 2008

    Thanks for posting the link. I appreciate the irony of your conveinient manipulation of the “additional cancer risk” stat with respect to the blogs actual topic.

    I am by no means an EPA apologist and overall I feel that the Agency has taken a step backwards in recent years. However, hurricane Katrina is an extrodinary situation that at the very least requires evaluation of unconventional/”outside-the-box” approaches, whether or not they are adopted. This region will not be well served by more rigid buracracy that prolong this complex process…

  4. Dana Brown permalink
    May 20, 2008

    “I appreciate the irony of your conveinient manipulation of the “additional cancer risk” stat with respect to the blogs actual topic. ”

    Not my stats, those are from EPA, not my manipulation.

    Additionally, the environmental impacts and the GAO aghrees with my take on the cleanup. I guess you did not read the link, they are throwning asbestos in a commercial grinder.

    Why is there no outrage?

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