The power and pitfalls of data: conserving an endangered urban species
Sorry, you’re not perfect.
I’m not perfect.
The world is not perfect.
We live in an imperfect world, filled with imperfect data that we use to make imperfect decisions.
Across all of our lives in this imperfect world, these decisions directly affect the world around us and for us environmental practitioners, they can have significant bearings on how we operate.
For policy makers, this interpretation of data affects which matters we deem significant, what gets protected and what doesn’t, and informs how we respond in the future.
For practitioners, our interpretation of the data can be the difference between whether or not a project is viable.
This ultimately affects investment decisions, resource allocations, and at a macro level the quality of our environment.
When we couple this with our current reality, which includes a general distrust in the science; growing environmental awareness and public concern; the increasingly public nature of environmental policy; and a growing population steadily encroaching into our wild areas – the implications of even simple misinterpretation start to add up.
To illustrate this, I’m going to take you on a meandering journey along the famous Brisbane River, highlighting the power and pitfalls of data in a real-life setting and explore the simple truism: an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Firstly, here is an example: just because I went to the beach and didn’t see a fish, it doesn’t mean fish don’t exist at the beach, right?
Okay, life jackets on – here we go.
Lilaeopsis brisbanica or as it’s commonly known, the Brisbane River Swamp Grass, has had a very elusive existence.
Up until last year, there were only a few clumps of this species recorded in the entire world in select areas along the Brisbane River.
It grows in thick saline clays below the high-tide mark and is exposed to tidal movements and deposits. Unfortunately this also means it was exposed to the effects of the 2011 floods which devastated Brisbane and the South East Queensland region.
After the floods, a search for the species in its known locations was completed by others, and concluded the species was lost (or at very least severely impacted).
But, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
When my team of ecologists submitted a clearing application for a small clump of this species the Queensland Government was right to say: “no, no thank you – stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200”.
But, they didn’t know what we knew…
For the past few years, we had been uncovering this intriguing little herb all along the Brisbane River.
So, what did we do?
We jumped in the boat and surveyed all the habitat along the Brisbane River within the Brisbane City Council local government area (LGA) for this ‘grassy’ unicorn.
We surveyed the entire mapped tidal waterway from as far as the inner suburbs, stopping where urbanisation removed habitat and all mouths to the tributaries along with re-visiting the coordinates of historic records.
During the surveying process, we learnt that not only does this species grow extensively along the river and has bounced back post-2011 floods but we extended its distribution to include the Bremer River and found it hardier than expected.
So here we come back to the point about an absence of evidence.
In this case, an absence of evidence was ≠ evidence of absence. But it can be where these key principles are met: we search within a situational context we could reasonably expect to find evidence, and use a sound methodology with statistically a significant sample size.
We did a few innovative things too, such as open-sourcing all data collected by uploading it to Atlas of Living Australia and sending all records to the Queensland herbarium.
This means that anyone can access our records. Which in turn contributes to a greater understanding of this species and ultimately improved conservation outcomes.
We took what was originally a ‘significant impact’ and now delivered a net positive outcome.
Proving whether or not an absence of evidence is evidence of absence is becoming increasingly more accessible than previously – especially with the right data and data collection tools.
Today, we have access to a whole range of technologies which enables us to obtain accurate and relevant data. This includes drones, lidar, trail cameras, Big Data, GIS and modelling software, and machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Our community too is playing an active role in providing quality data as citizen scientists, and lovers of nature are observing and recording their interactions and findings of the natural habitat.
These technologies increase the amount of the data we can collect, improve the efficiency and accuracy of our analysis, and prevent us falling into the trap of assuming an absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
So there we have it – this little-known herb which lives along the mighty Brisbane River may have just changed the way you think about data.
Doing a bit of digging and obtaining the right data can go a long way.
We hope you enjoyed your trip down the Brisbane River.
Sophie St John leads the Brisbane environment team and is a qualified ecologist who has over 8 years of industry experience across projects for land development, transport, mining, oil and gas and utilities.
For further information:
Sophie St John
Environment Team Lead
Phone: +61 3310 2348