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.