Once you know how many fish are present in a particular part of a river, including additional details like the time of day and water temperature, what do you do with this information?
For decades, Delta researchers have collected millions of similar data points from daily visits to the San Francisco Estuary, not all of which are available or immediately useful. How that information is then translated into a language relevant to water and conservation managers requires serious number, or data, crunching.
Sam Bashevkin, senior environmental scientist at the Delta Science Program in the Delta Stewardship Council, is working to bring data science to the San Francisco Estuary and help to make sense of the overwhelming data troves generated by field researchers. “Whether it’s an explanation for why the world is as it is or why some ecological function is performing a certain way … that’s what we’re trying to extract out of the big swath of data out there,” Bashevkin says. “It’s really a form of storytelling.”
Originally from Vermont, Bashevkin relocated to California in 2014 for a PhD program at UC Davis. While studying ecology, he noted the difficulties associated with analyzing and understanding the story behind complex data sets. He soon realized that he enjoyed experimenting with sophisticated computer software tools more than collecting the data itself and gravitated towards data science.
Bashevkin joined the Delta Science Program in 2019 and has been working to synthesize over 150 unique monitoring efforts in the Bay-Delta system ever since. According to Steven Culberson, Lead Scientist of the Interagency Ecological Program, research and monitoring efforts across the Estuary are decentralized and involve a lot of different institutions and mandates. “Data scientists have helped us understand better ways to organize our programs, more efficient means of synthesizing data, and new ways to use higher quality datasets,” says Culberson.
For Louise Conrad, the deputy executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council’s Science Program, bringing data scientists like Bashevkin on board is helping to improve the accessibility, organization, documentation, and integration of data. “When we can look at related datasets as a whole, rather than one at a time, we get a more comprehensive view,” Conrad says. “To be prepared for new management and environmental challenges to come, we need to have a full picture of the Delta system.”
As data are better organized, described, and made available, the number of researchers and policymakers who see the usefulness of this data for their own purposes continues to grow. “It’s a foundation upon which repeatable conclusions can be made,” says Culberson.