satellite in orbit over earth

Big data is here and anyone can understand numbers

Big data means we risk drowning in information with only a handful of lifeguards to save our sorry souls. Only you don’t have to be a data analyst to know how to evaluate evidence…

Not everybody can get their head around numbers. 

My wife, for example, is superb at understanding the broad implications for income and expenses for our business and household accounts. She can intuit the dollar amount for any renovation or household purchase almost to the cent. Ask her to do that with a spreadsheet she has absolutely no idea what’s going on. 

Other folks can do the math.

Our accountant is absolutely superb at it. He can scan across a page of a tax return and do the numbers in his head. He can understand exactly where the boundaries are, if there is a claim to be had or if the tax office will be worried about it. This is exactly what you need from an accountant. Someone who can predict and provide you with financial details when you need them.

This difference in people in terms of what they can and can’t handle with data is extremely important when it comes to evidence. 

We have to accept that not everybody is in a position to look at numbers and get them but that does not mean that evidence and inference is the privilege of the numerically gifted. 

That is fortunate given where humanity is heading.

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

Environmental data

The amount of environmental data available today is staggering.  

For example, satellites criss-cross every square meter of the globe every 48 hours capturing accurate digital images at high resolution that reflect information on vegetation, soils, moisture and land management practices. This generates huge amounts of information. 

When big data is generated the first thing that has to be done is to actually manage the large numbers. Clean them, tidy them, make sure that there is enough information metadata to show what is what and where. 

Then there is the clarification and validation of the data, particularly if it’s remote, and an ability to compute those data into information.

This is a skillset in itself, an ability to move, clean and consolidate information on and off servers that form the cloud. 

But the real skill is the ability to evaluate those numbers to understand the probability and likelihood of patterns and correlation. 

This rare skill of data analysis and interpretation requires a deep understanding of how probability works and how patterns appear in both space and time. 

One of the things that we try to do at sustainably FED is to illuminate the big picture. This means tackling some data analysis for particular questions. 

We don’t expect everyone to become data analysts but we show how it is possible to learn techniques and acquire skills to interpret large data sets or understand the statements that come from the nerdy analysts who have looked at them. 

This is no mean task and it requires a significant amount of effort. 

Our modules and our courses provide all of that material step by step and you can go as deep or shallow as you like in order to gain understanding. 

We encourage you to be bold and try to understand big data because…

Evidence is critical to the future of humanity

Society has to move away from the rhetoric of bluster, lies, and bigotry. 

We have to develop a capacity for everyone to understand what is true and correct based on the numbers gathered into evidence rather than rely on spin, rhetoric and opinion to support personal and collective decisions. 

Only when values can be compared reliably and accurately can we determine which values to retain, which ones we must maintain, and which ones we’re going to promote. 

At sustainably FED we believe it’s the data that will help us choose but we have a critical shortage of people with the skills to interpret the data. 

Interpretation of evidence is not just for the savants or the statistically gifted, anyone with some common sense can learn how to do it.

Hero image modified from Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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