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Why data matter
Source: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/
Source Date: Thursday, August 26, 2010
Focus: ICT for MDGs, Citizen Engagement
Country: Canada
Created: Aug 30, 2010

When Canada has trouble measuring how much snow is on the ground, something is seriously wrong with the state of government research.

An internal Environment Canada report from 2008, released through an access to information request, shows that cuts to the Meteorological Service of Canada have left this country without accurate weather data. We're not talking about a lack of money for fancy computer models or self-indulgent research projects. No, this is about basic measurement of stuff like temperature, rainfall and hours of sunshine.

"The system which had been gradually built up over decades, and which functioned well, was shattered by Program Review 1 and Program Review 2 in the early to mid 1990s," reads the report, called Degradation in Environment Canada's Climate Network, Quality Control and Data Storage Practices: A Call to Repair the Damage.

The other words, the current government can blame Paul Martin and Jean Chr├ętien. Nonetheless, the underfunding has continued under the Conservatives' watch and it is the duty of this government to fix this before it gets even worse.

The cuts were under the surface, which made them less visible and more dangerous. The weather service kept providing information, but the quality suffered as some stations were automated and staffed offices were closed. At one point, according to the report, "various attempts to salvage data gathering capabilities were tried, including hiring parking lot commissionaires to take snow depth measurements, but these produced mixed results."

The Conservative government might be tempted to let this problem lie, since one of the uses for climate data is research into the extent of climate change -- not exactly a cause close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's heart.

This government has also made a bad habit of demonstrating contempt for experts and researchers in all fields of endeavour, portraying them as elites who are out of touch with ordinary Canadians.

The government should get over its fear of facts, and it should start with an honest assessment of the current needs of the meteorological service. This is the furthest thing from an elite issue one can imagine. The weather affects the lives of ordinary Canadians every day, and so does weather data. Poor information makes it difficult to fight forest fires or to design sewer systems and buildings that can withstand storms and floods. Farmers need accurate information, too.

And yes, the need for information is made even more urgent by the fact of climate change. If extreme weather events are going to get more frequent, we need to understand how that's likely to affect Canadian communities.

The report also makes the point that Environment Canada shares its information with other levels of government, the private sector and the international scientific community. Inaccurate or spotty data will create mistrust in those relationships, and it could take Environment Canada a long time to recover from that.

There are smart ways to cut costs in the public service and there are stupid ways. If the cuts to the meteorological service are still affecting the quality of Canada's climate data as much as this report suggests, Environment Minister Jim Prentice should acknowledge the problem and start fixing it.

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