Thoughts from the shovel face: interpreting data

interpreting data

Paul Nathanail, managing director of specialist environmental consultancy Land Quality Management Ltd, reflects on the importance of accurate communications and interpreting data

August is traditionally a month of slow news. A time to rest and recuperate, recharge and restore, readying ourselves for the year ahead.

I have been reflecting on ‘Communication’ – the transmission, broadcasting or publication of information; and specifically communication about risk, and its cousin, uncertainty. The saying that people have two ears and one mouth got me counting. I realised ‎there are two m’s, two n’s, two o’s as well as two c’s, two i’s in‎ the word communication. Five pairs.‎ What can they teach us about communication?

Mean what you say, say what you mean. Humpty Dumpty boasted that a word can mean whatever he chose it to mean. However if his listener‎ did the same, crossed wires (for those readers old enough to understand the analogy) are inevitable. Risk dialogues are, well… risky. What one person considers an acceptable risk, another finds unacceptable (read that sentence out loud, slowly and then quickly).

M‎eta data matters. How do we know what we claim to know? How accurate is that map? How reliable is this laboratory analysis? How competent was the person who logged the borehole?

Never assume… that the message received was what was transmitted. Think of multiple google translates or a far off Christmas afternoon game of Chinese Whispers.

N‎ew information changes things. An old photograph, a factory’s history lodged with the local studies library, a newspaper cutting can reveal previously unsuspected potential contamination.  SMART site investigation focused on specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound objectives, can confirm, clarify and reduce uncertainty.

Oral exchange is human exchange at its (al)most basic. Are you sure the land is safe? Yes. Now say ‘yes’ out loud – confidently, warily, angrily, questioningly. The word is the same, the message very different.  But the exchange is two-way

Others may see things differently, perhaps better‎, but certainly differently. An agreed language, accessible and understandable while also honouring underpinning science and overarching policy and law, is a good starting point.

Offers of extra insights gained by friendly folk from working on or living near a site should be welcomed and followed up. Prolonged, Active Listening ensures your PAL bears fruit.

Checking common understanding is critical. Did I understand you correctly? Could you repeat that? Or show me again?

Certainty is far from common. Conservatism is costly but comforting. ‎If you have proceeded with caution, then explain where that caution lies. Is it in assumptions, predictions or explicit margins of safety?

Information is ‎the essential building block in managing land contamination risks and communicating with others to ensure a shared understanding enriched by everyone’s knowledge and expertise.

It’s usually not about ‘I’ but you or we. Everyone has an interest in ensuring peoples’ homes ‎are safe. Core to protecting and realising society’s investment in new homes is… COMMuNICatION.


This is a personal view and guest blog written for Argyll Environmental by Paul Nathanail, managing director of specialist environmental consultancy, Land Quality Management Ltd.


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