The challenges of environmental reporting and benefits of real-time data

It was once a fact of life that data collection and reporting was a labour-intensive grind for environmental managers.


Robin Ormerod


7 min

Reporting can be an unwelcome burden for environmental managers. It’s often time-consuming, set to rigid schedules, and can divert attention from important, live issues. Casting back just a few years, it was a fact of life that data collection and reporting was a labour-intensive grind for environmental managers and technicians. What filtered up to senior executives was quite limited in scope and value.

Now technology offers a dramatically different set of options for releasing staff time for more environmentally necessary activities that are of more direct value to the organisation. So let’s take a look at some implications of this shift in options.

If you can recall the work environment of maybe just 10 years ago, and certainly 20 or more, you will be able to remember - probably not with great fondness - the repetitive and mundane activity that was needed to simply get some real numbers to look at. A lot of resources were sunk into checking and maintaining monitoring equipment, downloading data, and then working through clunky software to put it into reasonable shape.

It was not unusual to find that since the last download, some of the data - or heaven forbid, all of it - was missing or corrupt. There was no way to know this without someone spending time to go to site and intervene manually. This is all in recent living memory: real living fossils (like the writer) remember it well!

If we think about the bytes of usable data returned for each hour of labour, the cost-benefit scorecard was abysmal by today’s standards.

If we think about the bytes of usable data returned for each hour of labour, the cost-benefit scorecard was abysmal by today’s standards. In fact, this line of thinking leads us to the time and resources that were, and still are, spent on gathering data: it is quite an investment when it is all added up, and so the data gathered deserves to be treated with respect, even if the story it tells is generally unexciting. There is another story to be told about wasted, lost and abused data over the years that was not valued properly, was lost to time, and this loss ultimately became a handicap to future plans.

Opportunities to use environmental data are still unfolding

If we fast forward to today, there have been some dramatic advances in technology that are still unfolding, and which impact on how we think - or should think - about data. Data are the foundations of all reporting and, ultimately, of decision-making in a rational operating framework. So they are highly valuable when seen in that light.

We can identify three specific technological improvements that have made a huge contribution to data gathering in recent years: improved data communications options, increased computing power and advances in sensor technologies. What these factors have enabled is a vast increase in the quantity of data that can be gathered per unit of time, the virtual elimination of the time lag between a measurement being made and the owner being able to know the data status, and vastly improved ability to process very large datasets. We can operate more monitors at lower cost, generate more detailed data, see the results in real time and fix data problems with minimal delay.

So, while the cost of good data per unit of labour has plummeted, we can also do much more of real value with the types and quantities of data available. The cost-benefit equation has been transformed. This extends from the data gathering process right through to reporting itself: automated reporting is a reality that delivers the goods with very little human effort. This means that environmental management can be much more focused on actually managing issues and much less concerned about gathering the data needed to inform senior management.

Ultimately, the real-time and predictive capabilities available today mean that data can be used in ways that were impossible not too long ago. Rather than just feeding a reporting system that looked backwards in time, summarising statistics and highlighting key issues in retrospect - and basically just ticking the licence compliance boxes - environmental data can now also be used to provide operational support, reaching out from the environmental department deep into operations. The trick is not just providing data but giving easily digestible guidance on how to keep moving in the right direction.

Mistakes can be costly when it comes the environment, not only financially but also in reputation and social licence terms. The threat of a costly operational shutdown or legal action due to serious regulatory breaches is indeed a reality. Looking at the options for integrating environmental and operational needs into a single management framework is well worth doing.

Business cases for integrating environmental data into operations

Over the years at Envirosuite, we have noticed a growing number of operations across different industries using their environmental data for direct business advantages. For example, mines that were once reporting solely to satisfy licence requirements are now using the same data to save on dust control costs. By acting on data from their monitoring networks, operators are applying control methods on problematic areas rather than blindly diagnosing the entire operation. This means financial savings, but also far more effective dust control. Business and environmental outcomes can be aligned.

In a separate business case, urban wastewater treatment plants are using the reporting data from their monitoring networks to identify which areas create the most odour throughout particular times of day in different weather conditions. This information allows operators to save on costs by applying odour control methods in the areas that need it at the right times rather than using an expensive ‘blanket approach’ that runs by default at full capacity and full cost. This shows another financial ROI for site operators acting on real-time environmental data that are well integrated with operations.

It’s obvious that environmental reporting must be undertaken in any industrial operational to achieve regulatory requirements and licence conditions. This is part of what keeps operations moving forward and out of the spotlight of bad publicity. However, we continue to notice a growing number of business cases for integrating real-time environmental data and reporting with operational drivers.

Yes, to achieve sustainable leadership, environmental reporting should be a key focus. But as leaders, take a step and look at the full advantages real-time environmental data can provide. If utilised fully, it can boost efficiency of the operation by enhancing decision-making to create both a compliant and more profitable and sustainable business.