Embassy Science Fellows Program

Saving the Rainforest…with Data

By Betty Kreakie, Ph.D

EPA's Betty Kreakie in Suriname

EPA’s Betty Kreakie, Ph.D in Suriname.

Managing big data is difficult.

Well, let me rephrase that slightly: Managing high-quality big environmental data is really, really difficult.

But, you may ask, if it is so difficult, why bother?  Because if you are able to successfully generate and manage high-quality environmental data in a Geographic Information System (GIS), you can save the rainforest.  And then… the world!

This was the sales pitch I used during my Embassy Science Fellowship in Paramaribo, Suriname.  Suriname is a small country located just north of Brazil.  The goal of my three month fellowship was to assist the Ministerie van Ruimtelijke Ordening, Grond en Bosbeheer (RGB) (Ministry of Physical Planning, Land and Forestry Management) with the development of a spatial data management plan.  RGB is a relatively new ministry (founded in 2005) and faces the same daunting concerns as many other land management agencies, such as limited resources and high workloads.  Incorporating new data management concepts into an established, busy agency is challenging.  And for a country that is still 80% pristine rainforest, environmental data management will be critical for sustaining growth while preserving natural resources.

My efforts focused on three main areas to build a strong data management foundation: strategic data planning, logistics and organization, and implementing new softwares/technologies.  First, strategic data planning helps ensure that data collection is in line with specific management goals and the agency’s mission.  Second, having logistical protocols in place that explicitly state how data are collected and processed increases efficiency and reduces confusion.  And finally, I introduced some new cost-effective software that would help streamline data processing and increase quality control.

To those who attended my workshops, this material was not immediately compelling.  For some reason, people do not find data management beguiling.  And this is where my sales pitch came into play.  Building a high-quality database of environmental information in Suriname will allow land managers to preserve their amazing natural resources while still allowing for development opportunities.

With big environmental data, Suriname can achieve true sustainable development while preserving one of the world’s few last intact rainforests.

About the AuthorBetty Kreakie, Ph.D., is a research ecologist for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development in Narragansett, Rhode Island.  Her work focuses on the development of spatially explicit, landscape level models that predict how biological populations and communities will respond to anthropogenic influences such as nutrient and contaminant inputs, climate change, and habitat conversion.

Editor’s Note: The Embassy Science Fellows is a partnership between U.S. federal technical agencies and the Department of State to provide scientific and engineering staff to serve in short-term assignments in U.S. posts abroad. The goal of the program is to provide expertise in science, mathematics, and engineering to support the work of embassies, consulates, and missions of the State Department while providing international experience to EPA staff.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Iceland: A Renewable Energy Power House

By James Gentry

If you have an interest in renewable energy, then there is no better place to see it in action than in Iceland.  During the course of the 20th century, Iceland went from one of Europe’s smallest economies, dependent upon peat and imported coal for its energy, to a country with a very high standard of living where practically all energy is derived from renewable resources.

I recently spent two months working in Iceland as part of the Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows program.  My assignment was with the Keilir Institute of Technology , the site of a former U.S. Naval Air Station and base of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  When the base was decommissioned in 2006, the Icelandic government converted the existing site and infrastructure into a university, flight academy, and a small business incubator.

Keilir’s goal is to produce highly trained professionals for the energy and technology industry.  Its first class of engineering technologists graduated in June of 2012.  As a new school, they found that they needed assistance in developing collaborative relationships with U.S. based universities and small businesses conducting research in renewable energy.

That’s where my assignment came in. I set up a series of interactive webinars between Keilir and EPA-funded entities that have renewable energy-related projects related.

The first webinar was with a team from Humboldt State University to discuss their micro hydroelectric mini grid systems research project. The project is supported by EPA’s P3 program, a student design competition for sustainability (read more at http://www.epa.gov/P3/).

The webinar resulted in a lively discussion between the Icelandic students and the students from Humboldt State University.  This was followed by a second webinar between Keilir and ACTA, Inc.  With contract support from EPA through the Small Business Innovation Research Program, ACTA, Inc. is working to improve the efficiency of geothermal heat pumps.

The webinars were a success.  Keilir has since developed a joint research application with Cooper Union in New York City related to geothermal heated gardens, and a new project on smart meters is under discussion with Humboldt State.

I did have a chance to get out of the classrooms and away from the computers to visit the most impressive evidence of Icelandic prowess in renewable energy –the  Svartsengi geothermal power plant, where water feeds  into the famous Blue Lagoon.  Whether you are traveling for work as I did, or for pleasure, no trip to Iceland is complete without visiting the Blue Lagoon, a pylsur (Icelandic hotdog) from Bæjarins beztu (far superior to its American counterpart, in my opinion), and some Icelandic skyr!

About the Author: James Gentry joined EPA in 1996 as a physical scientist.  He is currently the Director of the Peer Review Division in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  When he’s not being an Icelandophile, he’s an avid reader, and he’ll watch a documentary on just about anything.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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