More On-Line Data Tools for Student Learning in Environmental Health

More On-Line Data Tools for Student Learning in Environmental Health

Today’s blog post is brought to you by Dr. Ben Greenfield.

In my experience, on-line data tools have been really useful for teaching environmental sciences to university students and adult learners. I also think they could have good application in K-12 settings. By “on-line data tools” I mean free websites that provide public access to any kind of data.

In this blog post, I introduce and describe three more on-line data tools that are easy to access, enable self-directed learning, and demonstrate real problems with potential relevance to everyone. The tools I highlight are especially useful for teaching, because they all have interesting and user-friendly visualization apps built right into them. This enables students to practice finding patterns in data, and can offer the benefits of almost immediate student-directed learning.

Due to my research and teaching interests, the tools below describe aspects of the environment that can affect people’s health. I live in the US and am more familiar with this country. So these tools report water and noise pollution in the U.S. There will be similarly useful tools in other fields, or based in other parts of the world. My preferred tools don’t just show the environmental data; they go further to compare results to relevant human health benchmarks. This enables students to inquire about the potential impacts of the pollutant or other environmental factor to people in the surrounding community.

Considering all of the above, here are my three more of my favorite tools.

1. National Transportation Noise Map

Tool Developer: U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics

The National Transportation Noise Map shows predicted noise pollution based on road and airport noise in the U.S. Unlike the other tools on this list, the mapped noise levels are based on model calculations, not on field data. This difference can invite interesting discussions, such as what environmental models are and do. For example, since the model in this tool is based on road and airport noise, students could discuss the implications of not including other noise sources. The spatial mapping and visualization uses a very intuitive color scheme, with darker colors indicating greater noise. However, there are not additional visualization options like plotting and graphing.

2. EWG’s Tap Water Database

Tool Developer: Environmental Working Group

The Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database compiles and displays U.S. drinking water monitoring data. The data were obtained from regulatory compliance monitoring obtained from public drinking water sources, as required by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Drinking water monitoring in the U.S. is complex and this tool does a good job of assembling results from a wide variety of parameters in an intuitive and informative display. The focus is on comparing results to health guidelines developed by the Environmental Working Group. There are also many click-through options to enable looking at raw underlying data in tabular formats.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a pro-environment advocacy and research organization with an agenda focused on raising awareness and encouraging changes to environmental policy. The organization has been accused by some as promoting fear-mongering ( Nevertheless, EWG’s advocacy goals are reflected in the layout of the Tap Water Database and how the data are presented. For example, the tool clearly indicates that almost any U.S. drinking water source exceeds EWG’s recommended limits for various contaminants.

I think examining a tool like this which contains embedded agenda can actually promote very productive discussion about advocacy, information literacy, and scientific judgements regarding safety. For example, given the advocacy agenda, the information is accurately presented, but with some underlying goals. Students can consider how the goals affect design choices in the data presentation. They could further investigate how the many different thresholds were developed, and why the EWG thresholds are so much lower than those developed by the U.S. EPA.

3. cd3: Contaminant Data Display and Download 

Tool Developer: San Francisco Estuary Institute, with funding support by the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay

The final web tool on my list, called cd3, focuses on aquatic pollution in California natural waters. This tool is a bit different from the other tools, because it makes a very wide range of data types readily accessible. Thus, students can access and visualize data on many things including contamination in water, sediment (mud), invertebrates, fish, and birds. To achieve this flexibility, the interface of cd3 may a bit more difficult to use, especially for visualizing results. The tool can be used to show spatial patterns in a wide range of contaminants such as mercury, legacy pesticides (e.g., DDTs), flame retardants (e.g., PBDEs), and PCBs. There are also some graphing options to look at data distributions, and it is easy to download the data. I have mostly used cd3 in my classes to quickly find interesting contamination data sets for students to examine and analyze.


A few notes on my list of tools. First, I have only used the tools on my home or work computers with high-speed internet. I’m not sure how well they would work on cell phones or lower-speed internet connections. Second, I am not affiliated with any of the tools or their developers – I’m a college professor. However Tool #3 was developed by the San Francisco Estuary Institute, where I worked previously until 2011.