Using Data to Empower

Dear CITRIS Friends:

We are finding exciting new ways to gather and analyze data that put powerful new handles on issues that have been, until now, beyond the reach of understanding, responsible management, or repair. The two stories in this issue of The CITRIS Signal are good examples of how data can empower constituencies whose treatment has been driven more by sentiment, theory, or assumption than by data and analysis.

For example, the anadromous steelhead in Pescadero Estuary that are featured in our first story, “Quantifying Nature’s Water Needs,” require water, but no one knows for sure when, how much or what kind. Berkeley Engineering Professor Mark Stacey is developing ways to quantify the habitat requirements of these remarkable fish so that when we commit to protecting them, meaningful numbers can be wed to that promise.

When the US Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act nearly 40 years ago, it attempted to balance the conservation/development equation that had moved so far and so fast in the direction of ecological destruction. But, as professor Stacey points out, if we cannot quantify how much water a species needs, we cannot ensure it is getting enough? We know exactly how much of a natural resource takes to wash a car or to grow an ear of corn, but without the kinds of sensors and models Stacey and his UC Davis colleague Professor Geoff Schladow will soon be deploying, we have not been able to say with any precision how much water a steelhead trout needs to grow to maturity and spawn.

The second story, “Measuring Human Contributions to Urban CO2,” also describes innovative sensors deployed in new ways to get a grip on something important by quantifying it. Claire Gu, Professor of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, and Elliott Campbell, Assistant Professor of Engineering at UC Merced, are developing ways to quantify human-generated CO2 in urban environments.

Cities are engines of global-warming-promoting CO2.  But they are also places where huge reductions can be realized through good fact-based policies and practices and clean technologies. Shifting urban transportation habits from cars to cleaner alternatives, for example, can take a huge bite out of a city’s production of greenhouse gasses. Given the national and global gridlocks on enacting CO2-limiting legislation and policy, cities, will play a key role in the coming decade. Municipal governments are much more nimble when it comes to  passing and enforcing CO2-reducing legislation. The City of Santa Cruz’s ‘s Climate Action Plan, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, is a great example.

One inhibiting factor in the implementation of CO2-limiting policies has been our inability to accurately quantify their urban impact. A good solar-energy-promoting policy should have measurable local effects on carbon emissions, but quantifying those effects has just been too complex and subtle an enterprise. Soon, thanks to this research, it may not be.

Finally, with an election just one month off, I want to direct your attention to The Proposition 30 Awareness Project, a web-based public education tool that CITRIS’s Data and Democracy Initiative invented to ensure that California voters know about this important proposition, which would give a shot in the arm to California’s public education programs.

Keep up the good work!

Best wishes,
Paul K. Wright
Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute@CITRIS Berkeley