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Making Data Useful

October 17, 2009

A few weeks ago at the Conflux festival in New York I heard a talk by artist Brooke Singer, the woman behind the Superfund 365 project. The Superfund365 team profiled one toxic site per day for a year, making their way across the U.S. from New York to Hawaii. What makes Superfund365 smart is the clear and engaging way that it presents information that is already available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Screenshot of Superfund365 website.

The project got me thinking about the importance of secondary interfaces. These are tools that make sense of data that already exists – data that might be presented in eye-glazing data sheets, as dull stories, or that is distributed over a large number of disparate documents and sources. While these projects might not engage in research themselves they are critical to making research results useful. Presenting data in the right way can have a powerful impact.

For example, the FOOTPRINT project. FOOTPRINT has created a series of database-type tools for pesticide risk assessment and management in Europe. Based in the UK it originally started with EU funding, and is now on its own, looking to commercialize. It is the best of the best in terms of databases: all data is gleaned from public documents submitted by pesticide companies as part of their application for use and sale of their products in the EU. (In the U.S. this information is held privately and is protected as “trade” secrets.) By making public knowledge truly available to the public the tool has the possibility to make an immensely positive environmental impact.

Overall, both Superfund 365 and FOOTPRINT are inspirational models for using communications technology to make sense of and contextualize important and already existing environmental data.

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