Decisions, Decisions—and a new tool to help us make them

By Tarlie Townsend

I once heard someone say that we make about 35,000 decisions each day. Whoa! Equally amazing is that each of those decisions is based on relevant information that we either gather or already have. For example:

  • Without knowing what season it is, how could you decide what outfit to wear?
  • How could you choose a fuel nozzle without knowing whether your car takes diesel or gasoline?
  • How would you decide what groceries to buy without knowing what your family likes and what you already have at home?

 Fortunately, most of that information is so easy to come by you don’t even need to think about it (except what food is already in your pantry—I’m always messing that one up!).

Kids jumping into the lake from a dock.But there are some decisions that we don’t have much information about. Take the following scenarios:

  • “I want to take my family swimming at the nearby lake/bay/ocean. Should I be concerned about harmful algal blooms this season?”
  • “As a coastal resource manager, I want to know the real-time condition of our coastal waters, and how different practices could affect it. If something makes the area less amenable to swimming, snorkeling, or fishing, our community’s economy could lose valuable income from tourism!”
  •  “I’m considering a summer snorkel trip—where should I go for the best visibility, so that I can really see the beautiful coral and fish?”

What all of these decisions depend on is knowledge of real-time water quality conditions—and yet that’s information we don’t have much of. Getting it requires a field team and lots of equipment, and ultimately you can only get a small slice of the information you want.

That is, until now. EPA scientist Dr. Blake Schaeffer is developing a strategy of water quality monitoring that depends on satellite remote sensing. This method allows researchers to measure over larger areas and on a daily basis, providing more comprehensive information than ever before.

Of course, satellite data tends to be complex and unwieldy. That’s why Blake’s team is also working to simplify the information and to make it readily accessible. They have even designed a smartphone app that would provide people with information they need to make decisions like those above, and to give feedback to researchers about current conditions! The app is under the last stages of review, and the team hopes to release it in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned!

 About the Author: Tarlie Townsend recently completed an internship with EPA’s science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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