RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Massive Climate Data Awaits Analysis

Huge amounts of climate data is available for free to journalists and the general public. One challenge is finding easy-to-use data analysis tools that can effectively help users visualize the raw big data.

Massive quantities of climate data, much of it released by federal and state governments, awaits exploration and interpretation by the press, public agencies, and the general public. The challenge, however, can be finding analytics software that is easy to use, and produces understandable results, and can handle the volumes of big data available, often in very raw formats.

"There is a treasure trove of data out there, just waiting for the using," according to a scientist with Circle of Blue, an internationally recognized nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on global resources, especially water. "There's so much data out there to monitor," says J. Carl Ganter, co-founder and managing director of Circle of Blue and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Water Security. Ganter cited in particular a wealth of valuable information and insights on climate change issues released by the federal government earlier this year.

Circle of Blue -- which specializes in reports on the global competition for water, food, and energy in a changing climate -- understands the challenge of finding good tools for manipulating the vast quantities of data available. Studying, interpreting, and reporting on resource issues requires working with big data, much of it available for free from governments, but with little guidance and in raw formats. Circle of Blue uses journalists, photographers, data experts, researchers in the field, and other experts, along with data banks worldwide, to report on resource crises worldwide. "Our goal is to be a trusted, on-the-ground source for climate data," Ganter says, and "to empower people at the grassroots" with useful information, often in an historical context. All of that means working with big data.

In particular, Circle of Blue's Choke Point: Index explores the ramifications of resource scarcity around the world. It is part of a larger global focus on resource scarcities worldwide, not just water. A current series of reports focuses on several areas in the U.S., including California's worsening years-long drought and how its agriculturally-based Central Valley is being affected, and the Great Lakes and its importance as a water resource. In 2012, Circle of Blue received the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award for on-the-ground journalism, data collection, and analysis.

To get a handle on the sort of governmental data on climate and resources that often resides in generic comma-delimited files, Circle of Blue is using QlikView Business Discovery Platform, which Qlik has donated. The sophisticated visual analysis software can work with data behind the scenes, helping users view, explore, and interpret the data with little technical training. That approach works well for Circle of Blue, which works to combine its in-depth reporting on issues with collections of fresh and historically relevant data, hoping to provide greater context for decision-making.

By merging technology with on-the-ground reporting and online networks, Circle of Blue hopes to make the public more informed about the vulnerability of water supplies in the era of climate change. For example, "We're working with a very large data set right now in California about what chemicals and pollutants are in wells and how that might affect members of the public," Ganter says.

For its Check Point: Index, Circle of Blue is using the QlikView platform to explore data and create easy-to-read dashboards -- many of which are available to the public at http://www.checkpoint.org. The dashboards draw on public data sets to visualize water issues and to highlight national and global trends in water use. In particular, the QlikView dashboards help "deliver data to a wide range of people," Ganter says. "We're empowering people at the grassroots." California's water crisis represents a good example of that -- a fast-moving story involving large amounts of historical data. Circle of Blue began using QlikView in 2009, Ganter says, when "we fell in love with the idea of being able to elegantly visualize big sets of data -- and the idea of using business intelligence software to visualize the data."

For example, using basic comma-delimited data from the California Department of Water Resources, which is freely available, QlikView worked with Circle of Blue to create visual representations of the levels of California water reservoirs, both current and historical. An interactive QlikView infographic demonstrates how California's water reservoir volumes have changed over the past 20 years. The data can be scaled to compare local information with national and global trends, providing historical and geographic context on water supplies and conditions. That information, in turn, can help inform public policy discussions, and aid researchers, journalists, water managers, and members of the public in understanding the systems that regulate their water sources.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2014 ranks "water crises" among the planet's three most urgent issues. Water scarcity and supply are particularly influenced by climate change and are emerging as serious threats to people, business, the environment, and political stability across the world, including the U.S.

Part of the challenge in working with massive amounts of data on natural resources, particularly water-related information, is that it is often compartmentalized within agencies. Rarely is the data available in any sort of comparative, visual format. The QlikView dashboards work with the large data sets to produce sophisticated, engaging, state-of-the-art graphics. Combined with Circle of Blue's reporting and online networks, the displays can help public officials make informed decisions, and help the general public better understand water supply issues.

The Choke Point: Index data visualizations are made possible through Qlik's "Change Our World" grant program. To view the application, visit: http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/CPX/.

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