Question: What are the initial steps you take when you begin a new environmental data investigation?

sylvan is asking a question about general
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by sylvan | July 17, 2018 20:57 | #16734

I am developing tools that help people to interpret data about local environmental issues and make scientifically valid arguments about what they learn. The tools will provide an easy-to-use user interface for exploring aggregated, curated data and will allow users to produce reports written in easy to understand language with charts. Users will be able to select the datasets they want to use all within one system that scaffolds data investigations without requiring statistical knowledge. People who use these tools do not need to understand research protocols or statistics in order to create scientifically-valid arguments.

My goal is to work with Public Lab to integrate these tools into Public Lab's website. So I want to know how you all approach data problems.

I'd like to know about how you start an investigation. For instance, when you start:

  • do you know what location you wish to investigate? the issue? the measures you want to use?
  • Do you know what measures are available?
  • Do you already have data? Where do you find data? If you collect it, how do you know what to collect?
  • Do you know how you will analyze it?
  • What's hard about getting started? What's easy?

Thanks for your help!


"People who use these tools do not need to understand research protocols or statistics in order to create scientifically-valid arguments."

I am concerned that this goal might be rather difficult to achieve. I cannot think of an example of a tool which would allow someone to make valid scientific arguments without first understanding what scientists do and how those tasks allow them to create new knowledge. This project also seems to encourage the presentation of a scientific argument without having the background to understand why it is a valid argument and therefore without the ability to defend the argument. This has the potential to be dangerously counterproductive.


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Thanks, Chris. I agree with what you've said. I can't imagine a tool that supports valid scientific arguments without the support of experts either. I should have included more detail about what the tools would do and how they could be used. I'll do that now.

This tool would be used to help people articulate research problems with the support of experts. I don't imagine it being used without this support. It wouldn't work and could be dangerous, as you indicated.

To go from noticing something (e.g., "boy, it smells different in my neighborhood" or "everyone who cleaned up the beach seems to have gotten sick.") to studying an environmental concern is challenging and takes a lot of thought, even for trained scientists. We have to be able to clearly articulate what we think is happening and how we can study whether our hypotheses are supported by evidence.

I'm imagining a tool that structures the process of going from noticing something anecdotally to defining an actionable research design. The tool would structure 1) the definition of a research problem that 2) is measured by variables 3) which can actually be (or have been) collected 4) through a protocol that supports reliable data.

Curious if you have more thoughts...

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That sounds good. It's definitely easier to help someone articulate a question than to defend the results of a scientific study. Designing a scientific study to answer that question is not quite so easy. One reason for this is that each study is different. Explaining how to design a robust study in terms that are general enough to apply to most cases will result in a theoretical treatise on science methods (sample size, pseudoreplication, statistical power, instrument error, correlated variables, etc). That type of information will not be helpful to most community members.

If you had an experienced researcher at your disposal, that person would need multiple long conversations with the local community interspersed with all parties learning additional details of the system of concern. Only then could a rough research plan be suggested.

An example of some of the things to consider while designing a study is here: This answer was related to one particular study (urban dust) and other types of studies would require very different considerations (e.g., what do you need more replicates of: the number of measuring devices, the number of times a measuring device is used, the number of variables the devices measure, the number of locations studied, the number of types of locations, the number of seasons sampled, etc.). It seems that there are going to be a lot of variables for your web tool to consider.

The goal in environmental investigations is often to collect information that demonstrates that a law has been broken. Local community members sometimes know less about the law than they know about research methods, and that is always true of scientists. So in many cases figuring out what to study requires that someone understand what the laws are and what constitutes breaking them. There is no reason to do chemical analysis of the effluent entering a river if it is illegal to release any effluent into a river. Lawyers are often more important than scientists in suggesting how to address an environmental issue. If the goal of your web tool is to solve the community's environmental problem, it should probably always begin with a legal analysis. But maybe that is a separate effort.


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I've just collected a bunch of resources (a lot, but by no means comprehensive) at this topic page:

Hope that helps a bit!

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