Some thoughts on the first ever Environmental Office Conference

“I have travelled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” (Editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.)

Riding high in the all time list of poor predictions that (sandwiched neatly between Alan Hansen’s comment that “you’ll never win anything with kids” and Alan Sugar’s dismissal of the iPod) as fifty-three years later I chewed my nails while we hosted our first environmental data conference. Weeks of planning and many phone calls resulted in fifty environmental professionals gathering together at Aston University for a day of presentations and discussion. The event started with conceptual site models (and an impassioned talk from Judith Nathanail of LQM) and finished with a compelling case study from Paul Jacobs of Arcadis, illustrating how important the smooth flow of data throughout his organisation is.

In between these strong “book-ends” Landmark’s Thierry Gregorius enlightened and entertained in discussing ‘Managing Data in the Google Age’, which included the best tactical use of a swear word I’ve heard in a long time. Somehow swearing is not nearly so inappropriate when delivered with a thick accent and a broad grin!

Roger Chandler amused and provoked in equal measure in his talk which was enticingly titled ’Aiming for perfect communication with your laboratory‘. The mixed audience of environmental consultants, data managers and laboratory professionals were the ideal test-bed for this topic – the round-table session that followed was undoubtedly the most hotly debated subject of the day.

So what were the take-aways from the day? What did we learn and what are we going to do about it? Well – prepare yourself for a shock here – it seems we all want the same things! Well priced, high-quality electronic data (and that doesn’t mean pdf files!) arriving in a pre-agreed format with clear nomenclature; data checking that doesn’t require our intervention or involvement; accessible data storage and easy data sharing; the capacity to map, model and manipulate our own data in any way we want to, without undue interference from overly restrictive license agreements.

And are we all doing that? Well, no…

Some are a lot closer than others and it is clear that there are common barriers to be overcome. The low cost of desk-studies, the high cost of electronic data, the lack of clarity in data license terms as well as uncertain communication between laboratories and consultants figured heavily in discussions throughout the day, impacting on all to some degree. The good news here, however, is that all of these hurdles can be jumped; the collective and co-operative approach that developed during the course of the day provides clear evidence of that.

And why is good data so important? To avoid the following situation in my opinion:

“Two men were examining the output of the new computer in their department. After an hour or so of analysing the data, one of them remarked: “Do you realise it would take 400 men at least 250 years to make a mistake this big?” (Anon.)

Emo Phillips probably has the answer to this:

“A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing!”

Reflecting on the event and reading through the feedback forms that were supplied by almost all participants leaves me clear that the improvement of the environmental data journey is a theme which will continue to evolve. I’m already looking forward to The Environmental Office Conference part 2 in 2011. Carly Fiorina, the former President of Hewlett Packard summed this up better than I can when she said:

“The goal is to transform data into information, and information into insight”.

The question now is what can we all do to improve our own data handling? What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below.

So what’s next? Well, I’m speaking at the AGI’s annual environmental SIG conference at BGS HQ on the 23rd of March. From there it’s on to Geo10 at The Ricoh Arena and before we know it, it’s back to the NEC in April (which feels a month too early?) as Sustainability Live kicks off all over again.

Fionn Wardrop, 19th March 2010

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