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How one group uses a data analysis tool to fight drought

By analyzing new data sources, the group Sustainable Silicon Valley is looking for ways to lessen the long-term impact of the West Coast drought.

Across much of the Midwest and West Coast, the drought that began several years ago continues to rage. Highly populated regions, like California's large metro areas, have been hit particularly hard. But with the help of a new data analysis tool, one organization is looking for ways to analyze data that will lead to remedies that limit the drought's effects.

Sustainable Silicon Valley's goal is to make the Bay Area net positive in its use of water and energy, meaning it would supply more than it uses. With the drought continuing and the population expanding, this can look like a steep challenge.

But Bruce Naegel, SSV's technical product and program manager, said by understanding the problem it's possible to find a remedy. "We needed a baseline for where the Bay Area was, and we started to look at this and thought about how to get our arms around this better."

Data analysis tool replaces Excel

To do this, he and his team recently implemented a Tibco's Spotfire analytics and visualization tool. Previously they were using Excel to analyze data from California's Department of Water Resources and Drought Monitor, a project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Naegel said they were able to do satisfactory analyses on this data using Excel, but the problem came when they wanted to share their findings.

A major goal of SSV is to educate the public and policymakers. But Excel didn't give them the ability to visualize and share their findings. Naegel said Spotfire has allowed them to produce visually engaging dashboards that can be published to public-facing websites.

"That's where a visualization tool makes a lot of sense," Naegel said. "Being able to take a number of different databases and put them on the same page, look at old versus new, is a very valuable piece."

New tool helps produce deeper reports

In addition to producing more effective data visualizations, the new data analysis tool has enabled SSV to incorporate more than one data source at a time into its analyses, deepening reports. This was more difficult using Excel to import static spreadsheets.

SSV uses these reports to convince the public of the benefits of water recycling. The group is working with the city of Santa Clara and large businesses in the area, including Google and Facebook, to help them implement on-site water reuse programs. By analyzing data, SSV can show public policymakers as well as private businesses where their water is coming from and why the current state of things is untenable.

The group is also using a data mapping feature in the data analysis tool to identify areas where water usage is high, which might indicate violations of water use bans. Naegel said this new visual approach is going to make the problem more tangible to people and, hopefully, cause them to support positive changes.

"This makes it a lot easier to see a lot of the things we talk about," Naegel said. "You can see anomalies that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise. It really opens your eyes."

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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