A new approach to the management of environmental information




King, Blair Antony

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Environmental science is a growing field that draws data from a broad range of disciplines. These data represent the intellectual and financial efforts of countless individuals and institutions and are invaluable for continued research on the environment. This thesis details three case studies that center on providing users with improved access to environmental data and suggest an information model. Users will be better served by environmental information systems that provide detail on the strengths and limitations of data in archives, and that give direct access to individual measurements accompanied by metadata. Metadata provides the required, essential summary of the applicability of data. The first case study describes the creation of a prototype metadata system CODIS (the Continental and Oceanographic Information System). It examines the creation of an effective database organization for a multidisciplinary information system and the generation of conventions and techniques to assemble and structure multidisciplinary data. These conventions included the requirement for input using previously prepared lists and the development of parallel data structures between disciplines to facilitate data entry and searching. This improved database organization was demonstrated to decrease the time needed for data entry while reducing error rates in the entered data. Data in CODIS are appraised for reliability using discipline-specific protocols. The protocols are based on a dichotomous, decision tree format accompanied by detailed guidelines. The output from the appraisal process is a non-hierarchical assessment based on a five-point scale and comments from appraisers. These products inform users about the reliability of the included data. The protocols were examined for repeatability and replication between appraisals. The outputs from the appraisal processes were demonstrated to be comparable to peer review. Contextual evaluation, developed in the second case study, provides insight into the potential applicability of data in databases. The NCIS (National Contaminants Information System) study examines the development of a system to create contextual metadata to be stored with archival data. Contextual evaluation is carried out by examining and documenting each step in the experimental process. This study entailed developing a set of protocols for the assessment, and creating educational tools to ensure their effective implementation. NCIS groups datasets as either experiments or surveys, with only experiments being evaluated for context. It was necessary to develop a unified organizational scheme to classify diverse research and monitoring activities into defined categories. The process was reviewed and a refined version is currently in use across Canada in the implementation of NCIS. The case study highlighted difficulties associated with the division into experiments and surveys. The third case study examines the censoring of data, a practice that involves reporting values as unknown or undetected when their existence is known. This study of the British Columbia, Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Management System (EMS) examines the limitations placed on secondary users and metadata systems by storing censored data in archives. It includes a survey of current practices in environmental analytical laboratories and investigates the statistical tools used to remediate censored data. The case study concludes that censoring of data severely limits the secondary use of otherwise high-quality data. A gap-analysis of the studied systems leads to a set of recommendations and responsibilities that highlight the critical insights derived from the case studies and emphasize shared responsibility by all partners in the data-to-decision process. The thesis then presents a three-tiered conceptual model for a general environmental information system. In order to facilitate this task three new information elements are proposed and defined: datasets, infosets and metasets. It is anticipated that this work may serve to influence the direction of environmental data management practices by providing a model for future environmental information systems.



Environmental sciences, Information services, Management information systems