Sunday, November 15, 2015

Benchmarking government

I'm still processing the terrorist killings around the world right now.  I'll leave discussions about that to people who understand it better than I do.

Right now, I want to shed light on a little corner of the universe that I do know better than most.  Hopefully, the amount of understanding in the world will go up a little bit because of what I write.

I am a data specialist in a geophysical data archive so I follow news about geo-referenced data more than the average citizen.  Actually, I'm a bit obsessed with how data searches work or don't work and why.

This editorial appeared in my customized news feed and I was completely flummoxed by the ignorance displayed by the editorial board of a purportedly top-tier newspaper.

The LA Times Editorial Board was incensed by Governor Brown's request to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources--just days after the governor had appointed their new chief--to supply him with a report on the mineral history and the potential for mineral extraction of his family's ranch in rural California. The editorial said:
It's inappropriate for the governor to call the head of an agency for help with personal business, especially someone he had just installed in the job nine days before. It also was wrong for his aides to follow up with the agency to ensure that there would be a map and other specific information. State employees are paid to do state business, not take care of the governor's personal matters. Brown received his report within a couple of days after he asked for it — an uncommon alacrity in state government — and also received a satellite map drawn up especially for him.
When I read that, I was shocked, but not for the reason the editorial suggested.

I was impressed that Governor Brown, a 77 year-old philosophy major, understood the scientific method and how to apply it to data problems.

Whenever you tinker with a system, you run benchmark tests before and after.  If you install a new chief of a department, you measure his effectiveness by testing response time and job quality for a common task required by the department.  Moreover, you run this test for a case that you know well, so you can assess the accuracy of the results.

Asking for all the info on oil and gas extraction in the past, and potential for the future, for the family farm is a great idea.  His family has owned that land for more than 150 years.  If there had been oil and gas exploration on the land in the past, he would have known about it.

I asked my husband, a field scientist, what he thought of the story.  He said that you always test in an area you know really well, so you can gauge the quality of your measurements, before you go to an unknown area.  So that's two scientists who were impressed with the governor's grasp of the scientific method.

The governor got the correct answer in 24 hours, according to this later story with more details.
The wire service story said that "after a phone call from the governor and follow-up requests from his aides," the regulatory agency "produced a 51-page historical report and geological assessment, plus a personalized satellite-imaged geological and oil and gas-drilling map" of the area.

You know, just like any ordinary citizen would expect to receive.

But the characterization of the service appears to be a stretch. Except for a one-page personal memo, all the material collected for the governor amounted to merely a pile of old letters sent other property owners, historic data from yesteryear and some oil field maps.

"Everything is available on the [state] website," said Nancy Vogel, chief spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency, the umbrella entity for these regulators. "If you know how to find it.

"They did not do a formal assessment. That would have been many weeks of work."

The governor got back his answer within 24 hours. "The potential for significant oil or gas in this area is very low," the memo read. As for mining, that potential also "is exceptionally low."

Steve Bohlen, Brown's appointee as chief regulator, said the governor asked him about the geology of the land, past oil or gas production and potential for any future production. "I said that was easy to do," Bohlen told me. "It wasn't like 'drop everything.'"

Two petroleum experts who aren't necessarily Brown fans confirmed to me that all this stuff is available on the state's oil and gas website.
That "just like any ordinary citizen would expect to receive," is a low blow. Ordinary citizens in this data-driven era should be able to look up the mineral history of their land (or surrounding land) as that is the best predictor of future mineral development.

The Center for Public Integrity gave California a C- in their 2015 State Integrity report card.  The grade was largely brought down because of an F on Public Access to Information.

Making public information easily available to citizens should be a high priority and the governor should appoint public officials who are committed to improving data processes and data access for citizens.  Running a benchmark test at the start of a new department chief's tenure was the right thing to do.

Let's hope that this media 'gotcha' campaign doesn't deter him from running the 'after' benchmark test to see if they turn up more (or less) data faster (or slower) after Bohlen has been on the job for a while.

Background:

Geophysical data is extremely difficult to search for many reasons.  Records are messy, inconsistent, and often came from the pre-digital era.  So many things can get lost in the translation--or get plain lost.

We are so accustomed to nearly instantaneous searches on the internet, we forgot how much work goes into making this magic mundane.

For instance, do you know how much software and data engineering went into creating this data order form?
Do you know the international treaties that enable the sharing of this data? The small army of people who worked to clean up and standardize this global dataset? It took a whole lot of work to make this look easy. But it was anything but easy or simple.

Related:

I explain why this issue is important in Benchmarking fracking.

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