What if We Had THE Answers?

Tree Silhouette Against Starry Night SkyI ran across this article from Quartz digital magazine and it really got me thinking.  The article is: Big data is leading scientists to ask bigger questions.  The advent of effective distributed processing as open source software has created access to unprecedented amounts of low cost computational power.  A product called Hadoop from Apache Software has significantly contributed to this new era.  What are the bigger questions in EHS&S?  If we could ask any question, and get a complete answer, what question would we ask?

So, it’s not as simple as one question.  We know from working in our profession, that Environmental, Health, Safety and Sustainability are actually very separate bodies of knowledge.  They are only connected by the industrial activities our society engages in.  The big questions, with real potential for breakthrough if answered, across these functions may be different.

But first, what is Big Data?  The term has been used to describe the complete collection of digitally accessible data being generated by our modern society.  Not just numerical value data sets (envision excel spreadsheets), but also videos, tweets, pictures, web searches are all examples of the larger data universe humanity and our machines are now creating.  Digital Republic published a good graphic illustrating the big picture of big data.  To sum up, Big Data and the technology to interpret it, offer us the promise to understand our complex world (even universe) to a greater extend than ever before.

What are our most important and society benefiting questions?  After thinking about it, I came up with two meeting the criteria.  If you have others put them in a comment below! The first of mine is: Validating the belief that human activity is in fact changing the environment in a truly harmful way. This impacts the environmental and sustainability fields and the answer would allow us to continue the progress of society in a way that allows all species to thrive.  The other high impact question from our field is: How do we accurately predict human behavior? The answer would allow the influencing of employee behavior to ensure a safer, healthy and environmentally responsible working environment.  This answer would have huge impacts beyond EHS&S however as the methods would likely be transferable to a wide range of human endeavors.

The point I am making with this post is twofold:  the computational power available to professionals has reached the point that we can now consider the large scale questions that hold the promise of transforming human existence, and we need to be ready with a clear understanding of our most significant problems and their world changing solutions.

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About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
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3 Responses to What if We Had THE Answers?

  1. Chet Brandon says:

    Follow Up: I had a nice conversation with one of the leaders in the Accident Investigation and Prevention area of our profession. Thought it would be interesting reading:

    Mark Paradies Interesting article. But what makes anyone think if they knew the answers, anyone would believe them?
    3 days ago

    Chet Brandon, CSP, CHMM Thx for reading Mark and good comment. I believe the way the answers are shared must be consistent, viewed as authoritative and dedicated to achieving consensus. With these characteristics, and a healthy dose of patients, influence can be attained. It’s an odd thing about our intelligent species, sometime we just don’t want to be confused with the facts…
    1 day ago

    Mark Paradies The Hiezenburg Uncertainty Principle of physics says that if we know with certainty the current position of a particle, you can’t say with certainty where the particle will be in the future, It also states that if we know with certainty where a particle will be in the future, we won’t know with certainty where the particle is now. Now apply this principle to the ideas in the article. Interesting.
    1 day ago

    Delete Chet Brandon, CSP, CHMM I had to pull out my old college physics book and listen to some Bon Jovi to grasp your deep thoughts! I would offer that the uncertainly principle connects with one of humanity’s best traits. We are particularly skilled at assessing dynamic (uncertain) situations, with limited information about the eventual outcomes, and utilizing our intellect to formulate a strategy that has a better than average chance to achieve a desired outcome. Does not the improvement in data gathering, analysis and decision making efficacy described in the article decrease the amount of uncertainty and thus drive more controllable outcomes? Great discussion!
    1 day ago

    Mark Paradies Good line of reasoning. The better our data and models, the better we can predict the future. That works until the models break (security pre-9/11 conpared to post-9/11 as an example). Then the models and predictions are way off. Not to say that we should predict, plan, estimate … just saying that we can never be certain. If the article was correct, people would be able to use better models, data, and computational power to predict with certainty things like the value of the stock market and then take advantage of the irrationality of the market when it strayed from the correct predictions. Or is it the prediction that strayed? Interesting questions.
    15 hours ago

    Chet Brandon, CSP, CHMM It is the uncertainty that can’t be removed form our world that gives us EHS people a job I suppose. We get paid to minimize it and help the organization deal with the outcome of it. Thanks for your comments Mark, I have enjoyed our conversation!
    Less than a minute ago

  2. Randy Hines says:

    Maybe I am being too simplistic here compared to you guys, but looked at the means of communicating the big data, not just the potential data being held. But I believe that with the advent of “Big Data” and open source we can share common information across companies more easily. Kind of like an EHS&S “Facebook” if you will to show and share problems, ask for help on solutions and a one stop shop for common processes. I know some have talked about this on a industrial company level and EHS&S can and should be apart of that. But as usually happens when I make these suggestions, someone has already thought of them and in turn offers a website. By the way Chet….I think the correct group to listen too would be Pink Floyd, they were still making records in the 80’s!

    • Chet Brandon says:

      Pink Floyd would have been a great muse for this conversation! I like your thought about “a Facebook for EHS&S”. Are you familiar with the Open Source movement? Google it if not. Is there a place for Open Source methodologies in EHS&S? I believe the answer is Yes! You just gave a me a great idea for another post…

Please leave me a comment. I am very interested in what you think.

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