IEA Training Manual - Module 4

2. Developing data for integrated environmental assessment

Figure 1: Framework of
environmental data flows
(UNEP Regional Resource Centre
for Asia and the Pacific, 2000)
Knowledge gained from data is fundamental to our understanding of environmental issues, as well as for communicating information to policy-makers and other groups in society. In the context of management, what gets measured gets addressed. The flow of data in the IEA process as a means to influence decision making is shown in Figure 1. Given that data have an important role in decision making, it is critical that the data and indicators you use and develop are reliable and scientifically sound, relevant to your audiences and easily understood.

Understanding environmental issues, their causes and impacts on humans and ecosystems, and the effectiveness of current policy solutions is inherent to scientifically sound reporting of information. Monitoring and observation will provide you with the information you need to begin the substantive part of the assessment process.

 While “data” consists of detailed neutral facts, indicators and indices are selected and/or aggregated variables put in a policy context, connected to an issue identified in the IEAprocess and ideally also a policy target. A limited number of variables are selected from a wealth of observed or measured data sets, based on relevance of the variables to major issues and general trends. Indicators become signposts to inform policy actors and the public in a way that make thick volumes of detailed statistics and other data on the state and trends of the environment more accessible for decision making purposes. 
 

Figure 2: Relationship between data,
indicators and indices
Source: Australia Department of
the Environment, Sport and
Territories 1994
In order to use data and indicators for measuring performance, we need to identify reference points related to desired results. These reference points can be very generic and qualitative or, preferably, quantitative and time bound. The more specific the reference points, the easier it is to assess performance. For instance, we can monitor progress towards a target set for nitrate concentration in drinking water. Ideally, these targets or reference points are established through a science-policy dialogue, and become an organic part of policies adopted by government. The identification of climate change targets in the Kyoto Protocol underline both the necessity but also complexity and pitfalls of selecting targets and using them to implement programs and monitor progress.

You can combine multiple indicators to form an index. Indices provide simple and high-level information about the environmental or social system or some parts of it. Indices may also be tied to a policy or society target. As shown in Figure 2, a gradient moves from data to indices resulting in increasingly aggregated data. At higher levels of aggregation, it is easier to see broader patterns, while indicators can pinpoint specific trends and performance. As an analogy, it is easier for us to see patterns when looking at the whole forest than when looking at a single tree. In real life indicators and indices are often used side by side and can form an integrated information system.

Box 1: Definitions: Environmental monitoring, data, indicators, indices and information systems

  • Monitoring: Activity involving repeated observation, according to a predetermined schedule, of one or more elements of the environment to detect their characteristics (status and trends) (UNEP 2002).
  • Data: Consists of facts, numerical observations and statistics that describe some aspect of the environment and society, such as water quality and demographics (Abdel-Kader 1997). A basic component of indicator data needs to be processed so that it can be used to interpret changes in the state of the environment, the economy or the social aspects of society (Segnestam 2002).
  • Indicator: Observed value representative of a phenomenon to study. Indicators point to, provide information about, and describe the state of the environment with significance extending beyond that directly associated with the observation itself. In general, indicators quantify information by aggregating and synthesizing different and multiple data, thus simplifying information that can help reveal complex phenomena (EEA 2006).
  • Indices: Combination of two or more indicators or several data. Indices are commonly used in national and regional assessments to show higher levels of aggregation (Segnestam 2002).
  • Information systems: Any coordinated assemblage of persons, devices and institutions used for communicating or exchanging knowledge or data, such as by simple verbal communication, or by completely computerized methods of storing, searching and retrieving information (GMET-MHD 2006?).

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