It’s Just Data, Dead Data

Most importantly, we must recognize that the reason for data collection is not data collection.

Lately we have been taking about metrics and data, including GHG emissions tracking, to move sustainability forward at the state level. If we can understand the current performance of our buildings regarding energy, for example, and even understand that performance compared to a baseline year, we can talk about what we’ve done, and where it worked, and what we need to change to increase traction.

Easy, right?

Yet one of the hardest things we face is getting the data from various agencies for energy use and other items we want to track.


When we get into it, there are many problems with data collection.

  • It’s just data, dead data unless there is a system in place to gain knowledge and feed it back into repairing any revealed issues.
  • Generating the data takes time away from the work that we need to do.
  • Often, data generation, especially poorly informed data collection, is a distraction from what we need to do.
  • Data is past-tense. By forcing us to constantly look into the rear-view mirror, how are we able to keep our focus on moving forward?
  • Often data is not created with the same metrics or timeframe for every reporter, or even for every layer in the system, and we must spend time in quality review, and scrubbing the data for errant data points.
  • There is no story inherently attached to data.
  • Often the required reporting is not connected to the mission of the agency at all.

Most importantly, it is rare to submit a report and hear back about the aggregate performance or even about your specific performance. Therefore there is no return on our investment of time and effort. We, the reporters, are creating data for someone else. That’s it. End of the story. And it sucks.

What can be done to improve this?

Most importantly, we must recognize that the reason for data collection is not data collection. Everyone says that data is wonderful, yet data is never the point. Data is never the end goal. Data is not inspirational. Data is not a purpose. Data is never the purpose. Data is “a thing used to express, embody, or fulfill something”. Data is a tool for our purpose, or a fuel for change, or feedstock in a performance check for continual improvement.

Once we recognize that data is the vehicle, and not the destination, we can free ourselves from blind commitment to data. Planners can seek insights from the reporters about what they need, what data is important to them, what ways that vehicle can be swifter, cleaner, reasonably priced, and easy to maintain. Ideally, the aggregate reporting will then become easier to generate, and easier to generate in a way that can, in turn, inform the reporters in their own work, their own mission, and for their own goals.

Key points –

  • The reporting entities need to bring it up. If you tell a hospital to generate GHG emissions data, that reporting will inevitably be a burden to them. If you discover, in discussion with them, that their concern is air quality, or volatile energy prices, or noise pollution affecting their patients, then the GHG data collection can be gathered in a way to calculate direct health effects, to inform investment in renewable energy, and to help them make the case to relocate the delivery areas away from patient spaces.
  • They need recognition based on their perspective. And this recognition is different for each entity. Let them tell you what works for them. Many facility managers are like stage managers: they prefer being invisible. For them, recognition through processes that better inform and feed budgets – that is a valuable recognition of their achievements.
  • They need to know why. There are times the data at a different level is feeding the goals at that level, though it is incomprehensible at the reporting level. Try to make the story accessible. It’s not just about reducing GHG emissions. Find the “why” that resonates. We are each different.
  • They need the message from the right place. In some cases a mandate or a policy wins the day. It is easy, clear, direct, and can be enforced. In some cases a mandate or a policy is not the right vehicle, as it can be ignored, circumvented, and lost on a shelf. A “rule” is never successful without informed or co-creation, education, implementation, and enforcement.
  • They will also benefit from the broad view. Even when we have considered all of the above, it is always inspiring to see how each piece informs the over-arching efforts, or helps to achieve the ultimate goal. We are all in this together.

And remember that in each of these approaches, the answer can be different depending on the agency.

One approach that I am going to try for my own work is something that NY Parks is doing to create and maintain the story that supports their own momentum. It is a simple approach, and one that can take many forms. They have created a simple Powerpoint, and every time they complete a project that helps them with their goals related to sustainability, they capture a photo and pertinent data on a slide or two. The ppt is a living document, continually growing, and always available to show to new employees, new commissioners, new governors. It is their historical record, and inspires current and future work.

In summary:

  • Co-create the why.
  • Design the data collection and be specific about what the reporter needs.
  • Avoid getting bogged down in past data.
  • Feed back real and useful information.
  • Invest in using that data for continual improvement.
  • Recognize achievements in a way that is valuable to the recipients.
  • Tell (and maintain) your evolving story.

Make data live, and be greener,


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