04/29/2014 12:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

Data Is Information, Not an Answer

We are now living in the era of big data. The White House's recent announcement on sharing data to help communities prepare for climate change is a fantastic example of the power of big data to address global challenges. This project is going to make climate information available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), along with infrastructure mapping from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Homeland Security and other related data from across government. The opportunity for communities to tap into this resource is extraordinary.

But data alone is not a solution. Like a doctor who runs tests that establish you are sick, but then has no prescription to cure you, most climate datasets inform us that there is a problem, but don't tell us how to respond. We can now access endless information about carbon in the atmosphere and rising sea levels. But knowing that the world is changing is not enough to help a community like Norfolk, Virginia develop local solutions for rising water levels and flooding.

The truly exciting part of big data is when it is used to create big picture solutions. Applied correctly, big data allows communities to visualize trends, see where multiple problems intersect, and, most importantly, see what others facing similar challenges are doing to respond. In other words, turn data into knowledge, and then into action. Solutions-oriented groups need data to create holistic strategies to respond to problems facing their communities, because solving stovepipe problems based off of a single piece of data can create unintended consequences for a community at large.

My favorite example is of two organizations working in the same area, but with directives to fight two different problems. One group was focused on eradicating malaria, the other focused on improving agricultural production. Each team went about implementing plans to address their issue: The malaria eradication team distributed mosquito nets and the agriculture team built ponds to collect rainwater. It wasn't long before researchers saw cases of malaria increasing in the community. The data said things should be improving. What the team fighting malaria didn't know was that another organization in the area was working to solve their agriculture problem by installing a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos: huge pools of standing water.

The data said there were (at least) two problems in the community. So separately two groups set about addressing those problems, but instead created a third issue. There are countless similar stories that illustrate the importance of a knowledge-based approach to solving big problems. Thankfully, we have learned from these mistakes over time to create win-win solutions, but as climate change extends risks like malaria to new areas, we have to recognize that different types of information are important. Data on the problem alone is not enough. We have to also collect and share data that builds knowledge and fosters communication to help communities anticipate and avoid problems.

Building from that lesson, imagine if we had an open source of data where communities could see what other communities are doing to improve resilience AND see what projects are already underway in their own community. With rapidly improving open mapping and open data technology, it is now possible to link data on climate impacts with on-the-ground solutions. A comprehensive atlas that shows how communities around the globe are dealing with resilience issues from recycling water to building seawalls would be an invaluable resource. We need this kind of resource for several reasons.

First, cities and communities want to know what works. A tool that shows green storm water infrastructure projects in New Orleans could inspire Miami Beach to try a new process for preventing flooding in their city. Right now, city officials who want to investigate how other cities are dealing with rising water are stuck scrolling through images online that alternate between technical drawings of seawalls and pictures of people fleeing floods. We need more than anecdotes. We need real examples to see what is working, where, and for whom.

Second, we need a way to track what a community is already doing or planning to do. Resilience is not just about what you do, but also about what others around you are doing. Small tweaks, like porous pavement or rain gardens in some areas, could dramatically change soils and water in other areas. What we do know is that building resilience is a constant process. You don't just adapt once and then you are done -- staying resilient requires continuous improvement.

Third, data is invaluable, but so are tools that curate that data. You have to know what you're responding to in order to create the best solutions. A mapping tool that can move us beyond anecdotes on climate impacts to intelligently capture and cross-reference projects designed to protect communities is the difference between a theory of resilience and putting real programs in place to improve resilience.

The White House Climate Data Initiative is a great step forward. Now let's connect the dots between the challenges we know we're facing and solutions we need to be truly resilient.