Can Data Be Resilient?

photoBefore attending the NOAA Coastal GeoTools Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina (March 30-April 2), I had not spent much time thinking about data resilience. A brilliant scientist now working for ESRI, the leading company in geographic information services, drew my attention to this important question. But first, a note about the delay:

Almost a month ago, I passed along a link to an article in the Post &Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, that reported on two presentations at the conference, one of them mine. I promised more material from that conference, but the following week, illness took hold of me for a day or two, and soon after, I was consumed with preparations for a trip to the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Seattle, April 18-21. The next day, I flew on to Denver and attended a two-day Project Advisory Committee meeting for the Kresge Foundation, which is pursuing its own program concerning community resilience. Now that all that is over, and I have a modicum of free time, I want to circle back to report on both conferences.

Let me start with a fascinating presentation by Dawn Wright, for 17 years a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University before becoming chief scientist for ESRI in 2011. Wright was the main plenary speaker at the conference on its opening day, March 31. (March 30 was devoted to a series of special interest meetings.) Wright launched into her speech by referring to information as the “fourth branch of government” as a means of underscoring its growing importance in the digital era. Like many good speakers these days, Wright was also a fountain of recommendations about great new books, including The Fourth Paradigm, available for free download from Microsoft Research. Wright noted that we are now afloat in data, to the point where she introduced the term zetabytes, which equal one billion terabytes, which not so long ago seemed like massive units of data, but Wright says we are approaching 40 zetabytes in the current digital universe. But what does this mountain of data really mean for users? How useful is it?

Wright said this emphasizes the importance of metadata, that is, data about the data, and that we are facing a huge problem in “dark data,” data that is not tagged or properly analyzed, making its utility more problematic. “Just making data and code available is not good enough,” she stressed. “We need to be more open and transparent about what we do with them. There is a need for interoperability and cross-walking.” She then said that ESRI would practice what it preached, citing its sharing of work flows and use cases at She also noted that ESRI has joined forces with the U.S. Geological Survey in creating the global ecological land units map.

She then stressed the importance of digital resilience, noting that “human communication skills are still paramount.” She cited a recent Washington Post op-ed article by Fareed Zakaria, “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous.” The acronym refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the collective focus of some recent education policies; Zakaria’s point was not that STEM education itself is wrong, but that a parallel focus on the liberal arts helps create students, and eventually adults, who not only have technical or scientific skills but the ability to ask and articulate fundamental questions. This led Wright to state that we need to learn how to “read deeply” in order to ask ourselves the tough questions.

The days when scientists can isolate themselves in ivory towers are over, Wright seemed to be saying, as she stressed the need to “write compellingly” and “think critically to analyze ideas.” For programmers, she stated that, “If you can organize your thoughts, you can organize your code.”

But there was a still larger theme in a world where the job environment is constantly shifting and evolving. Training, she said, “is not just for your first job, but for your sixth job.” Critical thinking is critical for navigating these transitions in life when some job skills are obsolete within a decade. She added that there are still not enough people “squarely in the community” of the emerging field of data science. She questioned why there was still no formal accredited academic degree in coastal or ocean data management, for example, and her own book on the subject, Ocean Solutions, Earth Solutions.

She also underlined the importance of knowing the “design story behind a product,” a subject she took up the next day in a session on “story maps,” a translational tool for users that allows science students to tell their story. In that session, she noted positive change in that “students now want to escape the ivory tower.” She highlighted her central point once again by stating unequivocally that, “If you’re not speaking up as a scientist now, you’re doing a public disservice.”

My personal take on Dawn Wright’s presentations is this: If data is to be worth something, if it is to be resilient, it must be interpreted. And only educated, knowledgeable professionals are in a position to do this. It is no longer enough, if it ever was, just to crank out data and hope it speaks for itself. That is the route to impoverishing public discussion, which, it seems to me, suffers enough already in an era of sound bites and conspiracy theories.


Jim Schwab

Restoring the Chicago Area Landscape

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Chicago is not terribly old, as world-class cities go. It was incorporated only in 1837. The area was essentially devoid of European settlers until the 19th century. In the preceding centuries, the resident Indians, including the Potawatomi, had created a landscape dominated by oak ecosystems as a result of actively managing the landscape through the use of prairie fires. On the open lands of the Upper Midwest, there were few meaningful fire breaks, and the fires drifted east over vast grasslands. This North American fire regime changed the land by preventing the establishment of woody species, allowing oaks to dominate because of their thick, fire-resistant barks. The oaks in turn allowed more sunlight through their canopy and provided a thriving ecosystem for numerous species, including more than 800 species of birds and moths that eat their leaves.

The settlers who arrived in the 19th century, however, whether wittingly or otherwise, made quick work of the landscape they inherited from the natives they largely pushed out. They suppressed the wildfires in favor of plowing the prairie soils and savannas to create farm fields. Natural wildfires are few in northern Illinois; the wildfires that preceded European settlement were almost entirely a native artifact, which served the purpose of clearing hunting grounds but also served natural purposes of preparing the land for the sprouting of prairie plants. As the oaks receded, other trees moved into the void where fields did not prevent them, and in time maples and basswood took over, followed later by the invasive buckthorn, an introduced species. Today only 17 percent as much oak coverage survives as was present in the 1830s, and the landscape is highly fragmented. By the 1930s, only one oak-dominated parcel of more than 1,000 acres remained; today none remain. The numbers of various smaller chunks of oak land have also shrunk, just as steadily.

Chicago Wilderness, an alliance of organizations dedicated to open space, and the Morton Arboretum believe the metropolitan area needs to reverse the trend soon. Last August, I wrote about the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI) being led by the Morton Arboretum. On April 7, I attended a pair of meetings at the arboretum’s Thornhill Education Center that aimed at advancing the initiative. CRTI, which benefited for a period of time starting in the 1990s from federal support for some of its environmental projects, is now seeking new sources of funds as federal grants have waned, and is sharpening its focus into six areas of interest in order to clarify its mission for potential funders. Restoring oak ecosystems is one of those six focus areas. Another is landowners; most of the land that could be used to restore the fragmented oak ecosystems is private, and its owners must not only be willing to cooperate with the larger effort, but understand the reasons for it and its potential ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Economic and social? Yes. That is part of the appeal, one we laid out several years ago at the American Planning Association with the publication of Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy and Community Development, which began with an exposition of the documented benefits of the urban forest across dimensions of human health, pollution reduction, stormwater management, energy conservation, economic development, and other factors. Michael Leff, a research urban forester at the Davey Institute, has been developing a guidance document that stresses how good urban forestry needs to take a three-part approach that is as aware of the social and economic aspects as it is of the environment. Humans are essential to the success of any ecological plan, particularly in an urban setting. Public areas of nature or forest preserves contribute only a partial solution to a much larger problem, and solving that problem contributes significantly to human quality of life. It takes considerable scientific and social awareness to make the urban forest work in a highly developed setting where ecosystem fragmentation has become the norm.

Hence the social mission of CRTI: the need to share the story of the oak ecosystem with a wide variety of audiences throughout the area in an engaging manner that motivates them to take part in the initiative and participate in coordinated stewardship efforts. In addition, CRTI is reaching out to municipal public officials and staff, including planners, to provide training around the issues of municipal tree management and a model tree ordinance that CRTI is still developing for use by communities to advance the goals of urban forestry, including the oak ecosystem restoration efforts. There is also a role for the nurseries that grow trees and a need to keep them aware and involved so that they can be supportive of the overall effort, as well as for landscaping professionals, arborists, and others. I will return to this subject as the initiative progresses and evolves.

Meanwhile, I learned at the meetings of one valuable resource of which I was previously unaware: Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy, published by Timber Press. So I looked it up, and it draws rave reviews for explaining the value of native plants and ecosystems, just as people at the meeting had said. It’s probably worth a download.


Jim Schwab

Update to “Don’t Say Those Words”

In response to my good friend, Allison Hardin, planner and floodplain manager in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, posting on Facebook the article referenced in my last post from the Post & Courier covering my and Matt Hauer’s presentations last week at the Coastal GeoTools conference, another long-time friend, James Quigley, who teaches at Stonybrook University on Long Island, has brought to our attention another article about Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s unofficial policy that state employees in various agencies not use the words “climate change.” This one is from the Miami Herald, further elaborating on a situation first brought to light by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Check it out.

Jim Schwab

Report from Coastal GeoTools 2015

Somewhat dark, this is what happens when you don't remember to charge a camera with a flash. :)

Somewhat dark, this is what happens when you don’t remember to charge a camera with a flash. 🙂

Since Sunday evening, I have been in North Charleston, South Carolina, attending the 2015 Coastal GeoTools conference, hosted by the Association of State Floodplain Managers with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I intend to post more material from this conference as the opportunity arises, but as is often the case, especially where one is both a participant and presenter, time is often tight and inadequate to write the sorts of thoughtful analyses and comments I prefer to make the hallmark of this blog. But look for more in coming days.

In the meantime, however, at least with regard to a session on coastal inundation at which I presented Tuesday morning, the local press (Post & Courier) made my job easier because I can provide the following link to coverage of our panel:

I will say for now that this is a truly useful and informative conference for the attendees, who explore uses of geospatial technology to help the nation and coastal communities solve vexing problems of coastal hazards, sea level rise, and coastal development. This is a thriving area of discussion, and there is a good deal of fertile work evident among the presentations so far.

Jim Schwab