Data and the Delaware

Why is data communication important?

Publishing research in academic journals is an important aspect of science. It advances scientific knowledge and raises the credibility of an institution and its scientists.

But the scientific community should not be the only audience for research. If science is not widely accessible to, and usable by, the non-scientific public, then its impact is limited.

For science to be useful to our communities, it must be accessible. People need to know where to go to find science and then be able to get it easily. Sources that are easily accessible include open-access journal articles and public databases.

But “access to science” also means access to comprehensible science  — science which is presented in a way that can be understood and used by anyone. It’s not enough to simply “put the science out there” and hope that people will use it.

Scientific data can be complex and nuanced. If it is not presented in accessible terms and visuals, it can be misinterpreted  — which may lead to misguided actions or policies — or it could just be ignored altogether.

It is the responsibility of science communicators to interpret data and translate it honestly and clearly, so that it may be of service to those who seek to understand their world and make informed decisions about it. In the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, those people are our partner organizations and their stakeholders.

What are data products and how are they used in the DRWI?

The goal of the DRWI is to protect streams and rivers in the Delaware Watershed, the source of drinking water for 15 million people. (Read about managing the watershed here.) The partnership of over 50 organizations takes on-the-ground actions to protect water through its relationship with land  — namely, preserving forests, restoring streamside vegetation, implementing agricultural best management practices, and mitigating stormwater runoff.

After years of literature reviews, stream assessments, project implementation, impact monitoring, external data set analysis, land use/land cover evaluation, and more, the DRWI has generated a massive, multifaceted dataset.

As the lead science organization for the DRWI, the Academy is the home for this dataset and is responsible for analyzing data and reporting results. Partner organizations have access to the database, but not every organization has the capacity to analyze the information.

The Academy’s DRWI team is dedicated to creating “data products” for our partners. These handouts, reports and summaries present data from the DRWI using easily understood terms and visuals. They are intended to help partners understand how Academy scientists are using DRWI data, and, most importantly, help them communicate the impact of their work to their own stakeholders.

What kinds of data products do we make?

At the beginning of the DRWI, background reports were published to introduce partners, and the initiative’s funder, the William Penn Foundation, to how we measure stream health by studying its water chemistry and aquatic life. The Cluster Characterization Report used existing stream health data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to determine the characteristics of streams in each of the eight sub-watershed areas (“clusters”) that are of focus in the initiative.

The Monitoring Plan outlined study procedures and identified which sites would be monitored, how they were chosen, and which stream health parameters would be assessed.

After a few years of data collection, we were ready to take a first look at what the DRWI streams were telling us. Points of Departure was published in 2016 and analyzed data collected in 2013 and 2014.

Points is a 35-page scientific report, with attention paid to visual representation of data. This design allowed readers to see at a glance the overall status of the watershed though data maps and color-coded charts, while providing more in-depth data and information to those who were interested in digging into the details. (Reports can be found under “Downloads,” here.)

The DRWI has now been generating data for seven years. It may seem like we have enough information to determine whether the initiative’s watershed protection work is leading to an improvement in water quality. However, it’s still only enough to tell us a baseline – where the health of the watershed currently stands.

Natural systems (like freshwater streams) take a long time to respond to interventions, such as restoration projects. Some aspects of the ecosystem, like streamside vegetation or the chemical makeup of the water, can improve within a few years. But it can take up to 10 years before the biological communities rebound. Until there is a healthy food web, the stream is not functioning properly.

Still, we can use the data we have to convey some information about streams. In addition to reports and maps, our most popular data product is a Stream Health Report Card, which uses several years of data to generate a simple way to view comprehensive information about the current health of a stream.

Who uses our data products?

Our partner organizations use data products to help demonstrate the years of work they have put into protecting and monitoring their local streams. The products allow them to communicate their efforts and the status of their watershed to the public, municipalities or their boards, and can inform them when developing additional recommendations to improve their streams.

For example, last year we created a report for the sampling site on Buck Run at Laurels Preserve. This 10-page, easy-to-read report included background on the DRWI, maps and graphical data presentation. Brandywine Conservancy, managers of Laurels Preserve, use this report to communicate to their staff the health of the stream and how it fits into the overall DRWI goals.

It’s shared with visitors to the preserve and with preserve committee members. They also use the report to strengthen their engagement with people who live upstream of the site, enabling them to discuss land use choices and how it affects the downstream community.

The Academy team continues to work with our partners to develop data products to communicate science in meaningful and useful ways. We look forward to sharing our science with you!

Kathryn Christopher, Manager of Science Communication and Outreach, and Tanya Dapkey, Staff Scientist III, Watershed and Systems Ecology

This post is the second in a 2020 series celebrating the Delaware River as River of the Year. To read the first post, visit How Do You Manage a River?

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