Data, Data, Everywhere, but not a Drop to Drink

For years, a standard rejection of certain claims about the condition of the ocean, climate, air quality, and most other environmental matters has been the lack of comprehensive data on which to base a decision. Fair enough, and researchers have subsequently layed to with all manner of projects, devices and systems to collect the raw information, to define the baselines, and to guide the policy-makers toward actions based on "science."

There have been frequent complaints about financial resources, and it is true that many sources of such funding, primarily government agencies, have declined over the past few years or have succumbed to the more vociferous demands of researchers in other areas of inquiry. Nonetheless, millions have been invested in satellites, land and water-based monitoring systems, and institutional alliances with the express purpose of providing the data -- the fundamental knowledge -- about the changing conditions of the terrestial and maritime environment worldwide.

One such is an intergovernmental group called the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and its recently unveiled Internet-based comprehensive data site, GEONETCast ( A system of systems, the endeavor is run by a consortium that includes the European Organization for the Exploitation of Satellites, the World Meteorological Organization, and the governments of the United States and China. A visit to the site reveals an ambitious ten-year plan, a list of acronyms representing many other member organizations, and some teasing glimpses into what the system is now and will be.

In order to benefit from this valuable material (said to be available free), a connection involving a dish and associated ware must be purchased at an estimated cost of US$1500, a fee which may not delay connection by some additonal agencies, but will certainly deny access to many other potential users such as schools, libraries, and other organizations engaged in informing the public, the invisible thousands who not only pay for the system through their taxes, but also have a need to know as urgent as the researchers.

It could be argued that their need is much greater as they are the instrument of awareness and consequent political action that ultimately drives increased funds and behaviorial change. Indeed, there is buried in the GEO Secretariat an element called "outreach" which, one presumes, means more than increased organizational membership and is devoted to finding ways to make this system easily accessible to all users.

This is a pet peeve of mine. I attend many meetings of ocean organizations, typically attended by accompished program managers and policy-makers whose constant lament is that no one understands what they do. I always ask about their agency's communications department, usually to discover that the budget, if any, is typically less than 2% of the total and that the outreach position was cut by retirement or downsizing and is yet to be refilled two years later.

The fact is that the leadership of most of the agencies do not understand their need for public engagement as a key element in the realization of their mission. To make any serious attempt requires minimal resources at the least, far beyond an annual report, a special pamphlet, or a web-site label. Slowly, some agencies have seen that education and public relations are a necessity, not just as a financial or political strategy but rather as a social strategy that relates their good work to circumstances in the marketplace, in the community. Whatever your opinion about micro-loans, for example, there is no doubt that that innovative link between a global strategy to alleviate poverty and individual lives on the ground created a transformative socio-economic effect, a brilliant connection that advanced everyone.

Communications is a discipline like science. It needs competent, imaginative individuals to do the work, the technical and financial resources to reach a vast audience, and an energetic committment by civil servants to meet the needs of civil society thirsty for knowledge.