“Big data” can be an intimidating topic for some attorneys, while others view it only as an abstract concept with no bearing on their daily practice.
I see big data as an extraordinary tool with boundless potential that is available to anyone who has access to a dataset and understands what can be done with it.
Defining Big Data
There is debate as to what big data actually means. Some contend that the term refers to extremely large datasets, while others focus instead on the exponential increase and availability of data generally in our world.
Often, people talk about the “Three Vs” of big data: volume, velocity, and variety;1 others have proposed more Vs to be added to the list, such as veracity, variability, visualization, and value.2
As I see it, what sets big data apart from ordinary data is not so much the size of any particular dataset, but the potential insights that data analytics can reveal from it. In some sense, lawyers working on document reviews in complex litigation have been dealing with big data for years – though I suspect that in many cases treasured facts have gone unfound.
The fact is that many attorneys (and public citizens) have access to vast amounts of relevant data but don’t have the first clue what to do with it or how to use that data to achieve important goals.
I am not suggesting that all attorneys must learn to code (although it does make for a good hobby). There are information technology experts that can help navigate this confusing terrain.
But all attorneys should, in my view, understand the tools that are available and how they might be used to help advance a client’s interests. Big data is one of those tools, and its significance and value to all lawyers will undoubtedly grow with time.
Help from Big Data in Environmental Practice
I have found that one of the biggest challenges in litigation generally and environmental litigation in particular is the rudimentary task of assembling the basic facts necessary to prove (or disprove) a claim, or even to identify the proper defendant. Big data can help.
For example, big data can help grassroots organizations identify the known polluters in their area, and many federal laws provide citizens the right to sue a violator and recover attorney’s fees if the State is not diligently prosecuting a civil action to enforce compliance.
The Environmental Protection Agency maintains an online database, ECHO, where anyone can search enforcement and compliance history of Wisconsin facilities. As of May 1, 2019, there are 1,879 facilities listed with current violations, and 92 facilities with significant violations.
Another example of how big data can come into play in the environmental context through the work of U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt, who researched private well contamination in Kewaunee County. Borchardt and his team analyzed genetic markers from well samples and used models to determine how certain factors impact contamination levels.
Borchardt’s research shows that nitrate and coliform contamination comes predominantly from agriculture, not human waste.3 And his study found that the single biggest risk factor for well contamination is proximity to a manure storage pit.
According to the Iowa County Extension office, Borchardt is now studying well contamination in southwest Wisconsin. Perhaps the same or similar methods could be used to identify particular polluters and to hold them accountable for any violations of the law.
Conclusion: Take Advantage of Big Data
We live in an age of abundant and ever-increasing data. Attorneys (and the public alike) should not ignore or fear big data. To be an effective advocate, one must consider whether a dataset may be available that may help solve a problem or bring new light to a case. Open government and data transparency are effective policies only if people take advantage of the data made available to them. Big data provides a tool for everyone.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Environmental Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Environmental Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 Mark A. Beyer and Douglas Laney, “The Importance of ‘Big Data’: A Definition,” Gartner 2012.
2 For more on the definition of big data, see "What is Big Data?" from the University of Wisconsin Data Science program.
3 See Mark Borchardt, Groundwater Update in Northeast Wisconsin, presented at the 2019 Midwest Manure Summit, Feb. 27, 2019. See also Most nitrate, coliform in Kewaunee County wells tied to animal waste, WisconsinWatch.org, Feb. 28, 2019.