Outdated pollution data isn’t much use

In concept, I love this thing: a Google Earth map of registered polluters based on the registries of Canada, the United States and Mexico, just announced with some fanfare by the (rather pleased-looking) federal ministers and cabinet secretary from each country who are responsible for the environment.

pollutermapIf you have the freebie Google Earth software installed, you just download a file, double-click it, and get an overlay of major polluters in the three countries added to the map.

Click one and you get its exact address and a link to the appropriate government’s online polluter registry, showing what the polluter is recorded as having emitted … in 2004.

The reason for this is that they settled on the last year for which all three countries have information available, and Mexico has no official figures later than three years ago. Both Canada and the United States have figures from 2005; Canada even has those numbers in Google Earth form already, and has a sort of first draft of the 2006 numbers out there already, too. Yet instead of using the most recent data from each country, they settled on the lowest common denominator.

Now, what’s good about this is that it’s a rare departure from the usual way governments release such data, which is in PDF tables, probably ordered numerically by street address so that the localities in the country are mixed in together, so that only a specialist researcher with time to kill could possibly make anything useful out of them. (This is why the Environmental Working Group’s U.S. agriculture-subsidy database is so useful: it takes data that’s essentially gibberish to the layperson and makes it visual, and they can show awesome things like the agriculture-subsidy recipients who get their cheques mailed to them in Manhattan.)

But if something like this shows old data, it’s not a lot of use. An interested amateur has to go rooting around back in the hard-to-parse databases to get an up-to-date picture of what’s going on. If I were cynical, I’d say this was deliberate, so that anyone who complains about a particular polluter can be fobbed off with the explanation that the newer data shows a lot of improvement. In my hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, for instance, you can see the orange dot belonging to the Lakeview Generating Station, a coal-fired electricity plant, and view its rather unpleasant 2004 pollution profile, with no reference to the fact that its stacks were torn down in May 2006 and the rest of the building was demolished today.

So ten out of ten here for the thought, but minus several million for usefulness in getting citizens engaged.

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