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Lost Without Data

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In God we trust – all others must bring data” is a quote from reputed statistician Edward Deming, regarded as a forefather of modern business management practices.
It distinguishes between implicit trust and data-driven decision making, where the latter is a considered approach using the data available to hand and using intuition to decide upon next steps (which may involve the acquisition of more data to further inform the decision making process).

Lost Without Data

As practitioners of environmental monitoring, we all conduct this on a daily basis. However, outside of the professional realm, we also employ the use of data to feed into and evaluate decisions in day-to-day life.
One such example for me was a recent long drive for an early-morning departure from the airport. Hearing reports of severe traffic disruption due to inclement rainfall, Google Maps was consulted to evaluate options: 54 minutes along my regular route on the motorway; 46 minutes if deviating through cross-country roads. Mulling over the decision, I consulted it again after a few minutes elapsed; now 58/46 minutes.
The decision loomed: stick with the known route albeit with delays or deviate and risk other unknown disruptions. Data was available to influence the decision, though of course, it involved a degree of trust in the validity of the data – were these quoted times accurate? What consolidated the decision for me was the observed increase in the delayed route, whereas no substantial change in the alternative route. Seeing how this trend was sensible when considering how delays invariably compound themselves into further delays as city traffic builds, the initial decision was made: take to the alternative route.
This was just the beginning of the decisions requiring further data input. The directions fed by the satnav guided me along the unfamiliar route. Intermittent suggestions for alternative routes were presented; some accepted and followed, others dismissed due to interpretation of the road conditions (e.g. Google Maps assuming incorrectly that one could maintain good progress on narrow winding roads with flooded sections).
This combination of data and human interpretation is what Deming described as ‘autonomation’, that being the optimal synergy of machine data and human intuition.
We see this constantly in sensing in our environment. The data acquired forms one of a number of lines of evidence in the overall appraisal of environmental conditions, be it for risk mitigation, baseline assessment or diagnosing problematic conditions. If data aligns with intuitive understanding, then it adds confidence to the conceptual site model generated for the site. If it refutes expected behaviour, then it calls for more investigation and a shift in thinking about the problem at hand.
Overarching all, of course, is data quality – confidence that the readings are representative. Use of best available technologies and implementing a robust service model is key to this. Again the interface of human/machine is applicable here: utilising analytics and machine learning to assess and alert to anomalies in the data, with rapid personnel deployment to resolve and improve monitoring procedures.
As for my cross-country route? Well, I’ve written this piece aboard my flight to Southampton, so the data-driven decision process proved to be fruitful here.

WOW! This article was amazing - I want to read the next one as soon as it's written


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Steve Wilson

Steve specialises in the investigation, assessment and mitigation of ground gas and hydrocarbon vapours and is an Accredited Risk Assessor (ASoBRA) for permanent gases and vapour intrusion (he also acts as a scrutineer for the scheme) . He has written several key technical papers on this subject and has contributed to recent CIRIA, British Standards and Chartered Institute of Environmental Health guidance on ground gas assessment and mitigation. He was a member of the drafting committee for BS8567, Guidance on sampling of ground gas and the 2015 update of BS8485 on gas protection design (with 2019 amendment). He advises local authorities in the UK on planning, Part IIA and other issues relating to ground and landfill gas. He has completed several Part IIa risk assessments in relation to the risk of gas migration from landfill sites towards existing buildings, including options appraisals and mitigation design. He has designed numerous vent trench and barrier systems to prevent ground gas migration. He has recently completed work into the effects of flooding on landfill gas risk and looking at landfill permit surrender guidance in the UK. Steve has acted as an expert witness in court cases involving landfill or ground gas migration in the UK and Australia and for a site in Bangladesh where a gas exploration well had blown out. He has been involved in the design of gas and VOC mitigation measures for sites around the world affected by gas from various sources including mine workings. This has included retrofit schemes for existing buildings affected by gas ingress. He also provides expert support on ground gas to several Licensed or Accredited Contaminated Sites Auditors in Australia.