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 envirodata.yukoncollege.yk.ca. 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.

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