Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Give me some data!

Although I know very little about economics and economists, I love following their debates. Tyler Cowen, Russ Roberts, Karl Smith, Paul Krugman, et. al engage in, lively, serious, and data-informed conversations that, with a little struggling, even most laymen (i.e. me) can follow. Take a look at my blogroll for some good sites where these debates are happening.
Its a shame that we don't, and can't, have similar conversations in the realm of environmental management particularly in the developing world. Certainly there have been, and continue to be, lively debates about the efficacy of Aid and its effects on the developing world but much of it is nakedly ideological rather than data-driven, whatever side of the debate you happen to be on. Some have called for more randomized trials of development projects and I think such tests are probably a good idea though implementation, as always, will be difficult.
However in the little world of environmental management, and in the even smaller world of coastal and oceans management, it should be possible to collect comparable data from various management schemes in order to starting making some statements about their efficacy that are more than just anecdotal and ideological. Of course there will be arguments over the data and about what data should be collected, how, by who, etc, but that is precisely the point. Just as in economics, a field in which huge amounts of datum are collected, such data becomes the fodder for rich and useful discussion. Without it, productive conversations are difficult and ideological punch-ups, very easy. Unfortunately in environmental management in the developing world all we get are individual project reports that don't reference concrete but general data indicators that would make cross-project comparisons possible. The expected audience for such reports are usually government officials, potential donors, and other Aid or conservation organizations, not policy analysts.
I'm not sure how such data collection could be orchestrated. The nice thing about economic data collecting is, to a degree, that everyone in our increasingly globalized world operates according to the same economic rules and measures themselves, whether in China, Sudan, or the U.S. against the same indicators, GDP, inflation, equity, debt, etc. However in environmental management we haven't even gotten that far except in very abstract terms, i.e. biodiversity, conversation, "clean" water, endangered species (although that one is getting closer to what we need), etc. International management and data collecting training organizations like ReefCheck and the GCRMN (Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network) have made some efforts to standardize data collection methodologies but, at least I haven't seen, larger attempts to use the data collected from these methodologies on a global scale as the basis for discussions on how we can best manage coastal and ocean environments in any real rigorous fashion. Either the data just isn't there or we haven't analysed it enough to start having debates about what management schemes, or perhaps other factors, have led to "good" outcomes.

Any ideas out there?