How do we go about measuring the health of complex ecosystems, especially with humans – the ultimate complicating factor? We use good data and smart science, that’s how. Of course, this “good data” can’t be collected by any one scientist. Instead, we should rely on years of data collection by scientists who are experts what they do.
If you are a science news junkie like me, you might have noticed a lot of recent buzz about the Ocean Health Index. This is an incredible project with one simple goal: measure the health of the oceans. Of course, the word simple is hyperbole at best in this case. Oceans (especially coastal oceans with nearby humans) are about as complicated as nature can get. There are:
- biological factors like fishes, algae, invertebrates, and marine mammals
- geological components like sand, mud, rocks, and cliffs
- physical factors like tides, storms, and upwelling
- chemical factors like pollutants, water-rock interactions, and freshwater runoff
Layer on top of this system the biggest impact of all: humans. We have cruise ships, sand castles, scuba divers, marinas, tourists, surfers, cliff divers, and fishermen, to name a few. How do you manage to take all of this into account to measure the health of oceans?
Basically the OHI has factors in 10 different “public goals”, including tourism, clean waters, biodiversity, food provision, and coastal economies. They have equations for calculating a number from 0 to 100 for each goal, and taken together, these numbers indicate the health of a particular region of the ocean. The equations take into account both the current status and likely future status of each goal, making the OHI robust for prediction.
So what goes into these equations? DATA, of course! Many (many) scientists contributed data to the Ocean Health Index. Check out the main paper on OHI and its supplemental material. Relevant datasets were compiled to provide parameters for the goal equations. The more data the better the model (usually), and the OHI folks took that to heart – the list of contributing datasets is daunting.
I don’t have to ask, but I know that compiling those datasets was no easy feat. Poor documentation (i.e. metadata), bad file formats, icky table organization, and missing information likely plagued the OHI researchers pulling this information together. And here’s the DataUp connection: if only they had all used a tool to create well documented data that follows best practices for data management!
I’m really excited to see this OHI released. The website is pretty amazing, and definitely NOT geared towards the nerdy science types (although we can find that raw data pretty easily if we want it!). Go play with it, share it with your family and friends, and help raise awareness about the importance of well documented datasets to society’s well being. Share with your colleagues and lab mates to emphasize that their data might be used in unimaginable ways in the future – which means good data management is critical.
More on the OHI:
- Conservation International article
- New York Times Green Blog
- News piece from National Geographic
- Scientific American article authored by Halpern (genius behind OHI)
- Nature News piece
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