I 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.