Doing the Yukon in bits and bytes

About three weeks ago, I found myself, on an early Monday morning, giving a presentation to a crowded conference room about a database server project.

About three weeks ago, I found myself, on an early Monday morning, giving a presentation to a crowded conference room about a database server project.

There were two improbabilities here: That the subject of a database server should be filling a conference room, and that I should be talking about database stuff.

Though I have been a more or less obsessive computer nerd for more than two decades, now, I am by nature an operating system and communications hardware nerd, not a software programmer, and certainly not a database administrator.

To speak honestly, I have devolved into something of a techno-has-been as far as setting up Unix or Linux computers. And I have always been, and am likely to remain, a perpetual innocent when it comes to programming languages and database structures.

Over the past couple of years, however, in the course of carrying out my duties at the Yukon Research Centre, I have developed an uncharacteristic passion about database assembly in the cause of furthering Yukon environmental research – a subject that the continuously mounting evidence of the reality of global climate change has now made both intellectually sexy and scientifically important.

Like most of the few good ideas I have come by in my career, this one came to me pretty much by accident.

To begin with, my ambition was a pretty humble one. I just thought we should set up a database server for the various technological and research projects the Yukon Research Centre was carrying out – data from sensors in super-insulated houses in Watson Lake; data from ground sensors on remote Northwestel transmission sites, and weather report data culled from historical log books from the White Pass and Yukon Route river stations dating back through the 30s and 40s.

As I looked at those data sets, however, I started to get curious about just how many other data sets were out there in the Yukon – data from federal, territorial or First Nations government departments and from academic researchers and even private corporations such as mining companies and the like.

Who had all this data, how much of it was there and how interesting might it be? Would it make sense to start centralizing and standardizing these disparate data sets so that future researchers could find meaningful and profitable synergies between them for advancing our understanding of what has happened, and what is happening, in the Yukon’s environment?

To answer this question, I found some financial and human resources to start what I called a “forensic survey” of existing researchers and research agencies in the territory, to determine if there were data sets out there of sufficient quality and quantity to warrant consolidation, and if there was a willingness on the part of the holders of that information to co-operate in such a consolidation.

I honestly did not know, at that point, if there was enough data, and enough interest, to warrant any kind of serious undertaking to centralize it all. My instructions to the people I took on to do this work was just to follow their noses, finding one possible source, and asking that source about other possible contributors – either as sources of information, or as people or agencies interested in accessing information – to this larger effort.

Within months, I was pretty much convinced that this was indeed an effort worth undertaking. The enthusiasm and helpfulness shown by the more than 70 researchers we managed to track down over that time were enough to convince me that there was both a need and a capacity to fill that informational void.

I already had the computer hardware in place to host all this stuff, and, through a fortuitously related project involving the federal government’s Canadian Climate Change Scenarios Network, I found the resources to begin populating that hardware with information and a user interface that could provide the seed for future development.

(If you are interested, you can find the CCCSN information and a prototype of the user interface envisaged for the server at This particular site is really only a meta-data site relating to existing local weather databases, but it offers an example of the kind of thing that can be expanded into other areas.)

I had a proof of concept, and in the process I had assembled a small, highly-qualified team of local talent to do all the things I do not now how to do – set up and structure the server, draft all the policy and agreement stuff that data sharing sites have to deal with. And, with a roomful of interested database nerds and environmental researchers in front of me at the Westmark Whitehorse that Monday morning, I had the conviction that this idea was something both possible and useful.

So these days, I am sold on data-basing. I think it is possible to pool local resources to produce a local service – featuring local data, generated by local researchers, structured and managed by the local information technology community – to produce a small, but world-class database service in that will bring credit to the Yukon’s research community, and creditable research information to the research world at large.

We can make a digital picture of the Yukon environment with local pixels.

If anybody else there shares this same vision (or, maybe, delusion), I sure want to talk to you.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Most Read