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Public Lands, Public Data: Making Sense of Climate Change

In a new report, a former federal official says the government needs to make better tools for visualizing the impacts of climate change.

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Public lands on the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management's Instagram pages. Left to right, top to bottom: Denali National Park in Alaska; Slinkard Wilderness Study Area in California; Moonrise over Mount Herard in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado; Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska; Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado; Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.
Geoff McGhee is a journalist and data visualizer at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Data Points is a new series where we explore the world of data visualization, information graphics, and cartography.

Public lands make up nearly a third of the United States, and an even higher percentage of Alaska and the American West. They range from national parks and open rangelands to coastal waters, and serve a myriad of purposes from wildlife protection to energy production.

For the federal government, managing Big Land also means managing Big Data. Agencies like the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service need to constantly collect and assess satellite imagery, monitor sensor data, read and produce regular reports, and track transactions with industry and the general public. But with climate change already changing facts on the ground, one former senior government official says the federal government needs to do a better job.

Federal land by state
NG STAFF
SOURCE: Congressional Research Service

David J. Hayes twice served as the nation's largest landlord, overseeing hundreds of millions of acres of federal land as Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Hayes stepped down from his position in 2013 to do research and teaching at Stanford Law School and to consult with NGOs like the Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: Hayes recently joined the advisory council of my employer, the Bill Lane Center for the American West). He is also the lead author of an analysis published this month by Stanford Law School that looks at the federal response to climate change and the availability of relevant data. The report says that, six years after the launch of the public data portal data.gov:

  • Finding pertinent data often requires repeated trips to multiple agency websites
  • Broken and misdirected links are common
  • Efforts to coordinate data sharing lack enforcement power, and can sometimes run at cross-purposes to each other

Instead, the report argues, since climate change is being felt on a shared basis, the government's response and the publication of related data should coordinated as well. I spoke with Hayes recently about these recommendations, and what it will take for the federal government to more effectively harvest public data from public lands.

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David J. Hayes was the Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the Obama and Clinton Administrations, serving until 2013. The second-ranking official in the department, Hayes oversaw agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Office of Surface Mining. (Tami A. Heilemann, U.S. Department of the Interior)

Question: Can you tell me about the relevance of climate change to federal lands?

Climate change is very significant issue for public lands on a number of levels. First of all – and this is a point that is not fully appreciated – our public lands are largely undeveloped. To the extent that we have these natural landscapes, they are helping with the carbon cycle, and removing excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Another piece of it is that the impact is being felt very much on our public lands. You have 30,000 miles of coastline managed by the Department of the Interior through our national seashores, and through the Bureau of Land Management. Many of these lands are being impacted by sea level rise already, and storm surge is a big issue as well.

Climate change is also affecting species distribution, and you have invasive species moving in like the pine bark beetles in the West. You've got more fire risk because of impacts to the hydrological cycle. The Interior department – and the administration in general – have to be at the forefront of understanding how climate change is impacting our water, our wildlife, and our coastal resources across the board.

So how was – and is – the Interior department doing that?

The traditional approach that Interior took was to rely on the sub-agencies that own the land: the National Park Service was to look at how their lands were managed; Fish and Wildlife looked after the refuge system; BLM, the Forest Service, same thing. Increasingly, however, as we are facing the type of impacts we see with climate change, these go beyond the four corners of these individual sub-agency lands, they're really regional impacts. If you're going to manage those issues well, you need a regional strategy, and you need to partner with the other sub-agencies, state agencies, and private land managers too.

And that's the genesis of a lot of interest in using new GIS mapping tools and providing data sets  across agencies that will enable land managers, wildlife managers, and interested political leaders to understand what's going on – and make sensible action.

Hasn't the federal government already gone to great lengths to make this possible with services like Data.gov? Where do you think we stand now, and what could be done better?

Yes, the Obama Administration has made it a real priority to put in the public domain a lot of the data that agencies have been developing. The challenge, actually, in my view is that there is too much data at times, it's overwhelming. You need to have more of a road map for nontechnical experts to use that data effectively. So there is wonderfully fertile work going on in terms of helping sort through that data and visualizing the data in useful ways, particularly through GIS mapping techniques that can mash together data sets in useful ways to show what's happening on our landscape.

The challenge, actually, in my view is that there is too much data at times, it's overwhelming.
David J. Hayes

All of that, because it's such a fertile area, moving quickly is a challenge for the government to build systems for users to access that information. It's not just challenge for government, it's a challenge for everybody.

So you think that government data is sort of a patchwork? I suppose if you area trying to see where fires are burning right now, you've got InciWeb reports, maps from GeoMac and imagery from MODIS, then also you've got regional and state level sites that are tracking wildfires. They all seem to vary in how comprehensive and up to date they are – is that the type of thing you want to see done better or differently?

Yes, exactly, this is the legacy of the fact that the government agencies are siloed. That means that we're not going to get a big enough picture into our landscape if we rely on the services of these individual sub-agencies, or even the Department of Interior, if it doesn't also include the NOAA and Agriculture department perspectives (Editor's note: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is part of the Department of Commerce, the Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). So this a fundamental challenge in terms of management of the government bureaucracy: how do you get these budgets and the expertise of these agencies to be working much more closely together?

So what does success look like to you, in terms of making data available, and enabling decisions based on that data?

To me, success would be measured by the customer experience, by the mayor of a coastal town who wants to get the latest information about sea level rise and storm surge risk in his or her coastal community. They could get information based on the latest modeling by the government. And  they may also be very interested in related issues like invasive species fire risk, wildlife impacts, et cetera, that are associated with climate impact. Can that customer go to one site in the federal government and relatively easily put together the right information and, if you will, mash the right data sets together to get answers to his or her questions? That to me is success. And getting from here to there is going to take a top level commitment by the next administration, working closely with the private sector to get there.

Can that customer go to one site in the federal government and mash the right data sets together to get answers to his or her questions? That to me is success. 
David J. Hayes

Do you think there are bright spots in the government departments and agencies that may be isolated but could be helpful to emulate?  We've heard praise in recent months of "bootstrapped" – that is, internally initiated – projects like USGS's new topographical map catalog, and there's some excitement about the General Service Administration's new "skunkworks" 18F, which is stacked with accomplished people from the journalism and data vis worlds.

On one hand, it is terrific that you've got folks like the GSA team and the USGS folks thinking creatively and coming up with user-friendly approaches. But the reality, though, is that there needs to be leadership from the top of the government to help organize these types of activities across agency lines.

Isn't that the idea of the federal Chief Information Officer? I don't know if the Obama Administration was the first to appoint a CIO, but isn't role of the "Data Czar" to bring people together?

There's the CIO, obviously, but the agencies all have billion-dollar budgets in this area that they administer on their own, with relatively minimal involvement by a CIO sitting in the White House. I mean, look at what happened with the Affordable Care Act rollout. The reality is that these programs are run in the departments, and the department CIO's are the key people, but even in the Interior Department, arguably it's the CIO of the National Park Service or or the USGS that may have the keys to the kingdom. This is a tremendous governance challenge.

One more thing – you left the administration some time ago. Why are you taking this cause up now?

Although I am no longer in the Administration, my interest in the workings of government remains strong, and I am personally excited about the possibility of having government provide Americans with tools to make better decisions – particularly in the face of climate change and other factors that are impacting our landscapes.  

The full report and an executive summary of the researchers' findings are available at law.stanford.edu.

Follow Geoff McGhee on Twitter.