Keeping It Real: My Life As An Entrepreneur

Scribing About Scribe: Environmental Software Do or Don’t?

The client for a project we worked on in eastern North Carolina required that I use a particular program to collect and manage environmental data. This program, Scribe, was created by the EPA’s Environmental Response Team using Microsoft Access. Because Scribe’s purpose is so similar to environmental management software we were developing, I was, of course, interested in this free product and what it has to offer.

Scribe is divided into three main parts, which I will briefly summarize below. These summaries are not designed to be technical reviews but to offer a non-biased viewpoint of Scribe’s capabilities so that you can determine for yourself if you want to learn more.

1. Planning.
In the planning section, you create your event. This involves picking/creating your analytical methods, selecting a lab, inputting GPS coordinates of the wells/points that you are sampling, and entering all project information (Project numbers, DART numbers, or Contract Laboratory Program [CLP] lab numbers). One area to pay particular attention to is making sure that the right fields are populated with the correct information depending on the lab you are using. Entering wrong information can cause problems later.

2. Sampling.
Scribe’s greatest strength is its versatility. Scribe is designed for Air, Wipe, Biota, Soil/Sediment, Soil Gas, and Water samples. It also leaves ample space to include the sampling data you have collected without overwhelming you with choices.

3. Sample Management.
This area allows you to set up and print labels and chain of custody forms, as well as input lab results. However, because the EPA and CLP labs require certain information in certain areas, this part can get confusing. Really, your best shot at getting this right your first time around is to contact someone who knows Scribe and knows what options are to be selected and then get them to walk you through it.

Now, from my own experience with Scribe, here are a couple of pros and cons to the system:

Pros:

  • It can be used for a wide range of sampling and monitoring jobs.
  • It is highly customizable.
  • It allows data to be exported in different forms.
  • It’s free! (Unless you don’t already have Microsoft Access).

Cons:

  • Too many options and field choices can leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed.
  • Not intuitive; a very steep learning curve.
  • Label setup and chain of custody setup is confusing and poorly executed.
  • Entering all samples and analyses is very time consuming.

To download a copy of Scribe or to read about Scribe’s technical capabilities, visit: www.ertsupport.org/scribe_home.htm. Microsoft Access is required.

Have you used Scribe? Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments about your experiences.

 


Written by: Chris Hollinger

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Fudging Environmental Data

Awhile back, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also an environmental consultant. He was telling me about a time he hired a subcontractor to tag static water levels. He provided the sub with a map of the site and monitoring well locations and advised him to call him if there were any problems.

About a week later, my friend received the water level data. It was at this time he realized that the map he provided to the sub was a couple years old, and some of the wells had since been abandoned. Apparently, by some miracle, the sub managed to gauge these wells anyway.

“It was good fake data,” my friend told me. “When I mapped it, all the data points made sense.”  Evidently, the sub had put a lot of thought into it.

What I can’t understand is, why go to all the trouble of making up plausible data as opposed to just calling and saying that you’re having a problem finding the well? Needless to say, the wells were gauged again (for free) by a different technician.

Making Up Data
Making up data is bad, very bad. Even making up data that doesn’t really matter (if there is such a thing) is bad. It calls into question the ethics of the scientist and of the entire company.

I’m sure everyone has read the case of Cetero Research. Six research chemists at the Cetero laboratory in Houston were found intentionally entering inaccurate date/time data as to when tests were being run. Why? So they could claim overtime pay! As Cetero conducted its own investigation, the FDA (informed by a concerned employee) arrived on the scene. Two federal investigations followed, along with a third party audit.

The result of this was that the FDA ruled that there was “widespread misconduct” and “if the foundation of the laboratory is corrupt, then data generated will be also.” The FDA ruled that tests run during a 5-year period (April 2005 – June 2010) would need to be repeated and confirmed.

Cetero was quick to point out that the FDA “has not questioned the safety or efficacy of drugs already approved, marketed and based on data generated.” Lenders were still concerned, though, and Cetero filed for bankruptcy this past March.

Could Electronic Data Collection Help?
If someone is making up data, you want to be able to spot it quickly. So the question is, if you are collecting data electronically, does it help?

Time Stamping
With electronic data collection, you have the ability to see when a record is created and when it was last altered. Obviously, an altered record doesn’t automatically mean data was fabricated (there are legitimate reasons for needing to edit a record). However, if you are having suspicions, it provides a good place to start looking.

Validation Controls
When data are collected electronically, validation can be built in depending on what program is used for its collection.  For example, if pH data are collected, a validation range can be created so that if a technician enters 15, he/she isn’t permitted to save the record. Data fields can be made mandatory so that they aren’t left blank.

Data Available for Review Sooner
I had some sites in Florida where I used a system called Environpro, built using our Adesso software. It collected data offline, then when I was in a wireless hotspot, all the data were automatically uploaded to the central server and were available for review by my supervisor.

I don’t know how the folks at Cetero were recording date/time data. Regardless, those who want to make up data are going to make up data, no matter how its recorded. Electronic data collection could make it easier and faster to uncover problems — like what happened at Cetero — before the lives of so many are negatively affected.
 


Written by: Chris Hollinger

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Learning Wakanda (Cool Tool, Weird Name)

I started learning a new tool and framework that I am really excited about.  It’s called Wakanda, and it is awesome!  It’s a complete Javascript stack with its own design studio and integrated design environment (IDE), plus a NoSQL database engine and web server. This relatively new framework comes from the makers of 4D, who hail from France and who have very deep database roots. I know, because for an entire decade of my life (1993 – 2003), I used to use 4D to build internal database applications for my company.

What can you do with it?
Wakanda is a full web app development framework, where you can build a database model (like tables and fields, and link them up with relationships between tables) and then also build web pages (with interactive elements like buttons, sliders, and tabs) to capture and display the information in your data model, plus you can target desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. All from one visual tool, which uses plain javascript. It’s very cool and relatively easy to learn. So with this one single tool, you could build a fully working database-driven HTML5 web application that renders well on browsers accessed via desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones.

One of the cooler things about this framework is that it uses a super fast NoSQL database that contains elements of SQL, so you can still connect tables and fields together just like you did with relational databases, but with the speed of a noSQL database engine. Testing your app on the server is as simple as clicking a single button.

Getting Started
Getting started building web pages is also pretty easy to do in Wakanda. When you first build a page, you can target either desktop, tablet, or smartphone and then drop widgets (buttons, grids, text fields, combo-boxes, radio buttons, etc.) onto your page.  Connecting the widgets on the page to the data model is as simple as dragging and dropping your datastore on top of the widget and then customizing which fields should interact with the widget. Each widget also contains event scripts that you can edit. So, for example, if you wanted a button to invoke a particular action when a user clicks on it, then all you would do is click on the “on click” event element and add your javascript code. Styling your widgets with colors, drop shadows, font sizes, etc. is also very easy via the Styles tab.

While all this may sound complex, it’s really pretty easy to learn, and because it’s all in javascript, you can extend the power of your application through the use of other tools as well, or even outsource portions that you can’t handle on your own.  So really, you aren’t tied to only using Wakanda to build your application…but it sure makes it easy to start and to control what it is you are wanting to build.

Next Step
I have now viewed most of the online video tutorials, read quite a bit of documentation, and completed several how-to tutorials. But to really learn this tool—and any tool, for that matter—I am going to need to start a real application.  I have one in mind, which I will attempt to build in Wakanda over the next month or two, and I will write about my experience then.

Check it out for yourself at http://wakanda.org. There are various options, including a free open source version, commercial versions, and an enterprise version.

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First Ever Guidance Document for MRAs Available

Guidance documents are important aspects of the work that we conduct. Yes, they can be annoying, and more than once you are going to wonder, “Why on earth are we doing it this way?”, but nevertheless, guidance documents are necessary. They create a standard and outline procedures that ensure the quality of the data being collected.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that they had created the first ever federal guidance document for Microbial Risk Assessments (MRAs) in food and water. The document provides a framework to perform MRAs and lays out a “flexible” set of approaches, methods, and tools, while also providing transparency to the process.

From the EPA:

Formal risk assessments for food, water, and environmentally-relevant chemicals have been undertaken for decades. However, an overarching microbial risk assessment guideline has not been available until now. The guideline announced today meets this need by providing comprehensive, yet specific and descriptive information for developing assessments of microbial risk in food and water.

The document outlining the Microbial Risk Assessment guidelines is now available on the EPA website or by clicking here.
 


Written by: Chris Hollinger

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Gettin’ Buggy With It: Insects as Water Quality Indicators

When environmental sampling work involves testing surface water quality – streams, rivers, lakes, and such – I usually begin and end with taking samples and measuring the pH. This is what I was trained to do, and this is what will go into the report. However, it’s important to pay attention to aquatic insects during any work involving surface water. Ignore them, and you could be rewarded with a bite from the guy pictured below: a giant water bug (also affectionately known as “the toe biter”). This insect, along with such legends as the Tarantula Hawk and Bullet Ant, are said to have the most painful bites of any insect – and yes, giant water bugs live all over the US!


Pictured Above: A giant water bug contemplates making your life very miserable.

Aside from avoiding unimaginable pain, some aquatic insects are very intolerant of pollution, so their presence/absence can be a strong indicator of water health. I’m not advocating buying a net and spending hours catching and identifying insects (who has the time), but there are a couple of key insect species whose presence can tell you a good deal about water quality.
 
Indicators of good water quality:

Stonefly Nymph
Caddisfly Larvae
Mayfly Nymph

 
Indicators of poor water quality:

Black Fly Larvae
Leeches
Midge Fly Larvae

 
Aquatic insects are good indicators of water quality because:

  • They are affected by chemical and biological conditions of the water.
  • They can show cumulative impacts of pollution.
  • They are easy to identify.

Limitations of using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality:
Although insects can be great indicators of overall water quality, they are limited in what they can tell you about why the water quality is the way it is. For example, lack of stoneflies could show that the water has low dissolved oxygen, but it won’t tell us why.

Should you use insects as indicators of water quality?
In my opinion, biological indicators should be part of any water assessment. Although they can’t tell you the specifics that chemical monitoring can, they do paint a broader overall picture of the ecosystem health. They also help us understand the biological effects of the pollutants we are measuring on the stream ecosystem.

If you are interested in a detailed guide on how to identify aquatic insects and what their presence or absence could mean for water quality, please visit: http://www.riverwatch.ab.ca/how_to_monitor/invert_identifying-ident.cfm
 


Written by: Chris Hollinger

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

22 Years Young


(our original logo)

On September 12, 2013, Terraine officially turned 22 years old. It seems just like yesterday that Paul and I started Terraine. I bought a book titled “How to Incorporate in North Carolina”, and we thought that that’s all we needed to know to get started. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and that was a good thing. Because we got started.

Getting Started, Pre-Internet Days
When we started Terraine in September of 1991, there was no world wide web, only a few proprietary networks like GEnie, CompuServe, and AOL. Fax machines were all the rage and expensive, and cell phones were large and bulky and had something called “follow-me-roaming” that you had to activate whenever you drove beyond your designated cell tower coverage. Believe it or not, cell phone companies back then had sales guys that would come visit your office and tout the benefits of cell phones. People actually had to be convinced of this back then.

Macintosh computers were regarded as toys…most people thought that you could not do “real work” with a Mac back then. It wasn’t until 2006 or later that Apple was synonymous with great technology in the workplace. And people communicated with each other via large analog desktop phones which were connected to a wall.

More Complicated Back Then
Getting a company going was more complicated and expensive back then. Reserving a company name entailed calling a phone number at the office of the Secretary of State and asking a human being if a particular name was available. In our case, I called the number, asked if “Terraine Inc.” was available, and the lady on the line said “it’s available”. So I then reserved the name, filled out some forms, paid the incorporation fee, and presto! Terraine was born.

Angel investors and venture capital? Don’t make me laugh…that stuff barely existed, especially for a services company. Loans from banks? Sure, they’d loan you back the money you put into their bank, dollar for dollar. But somehow we managed to sucker my dad and Paul’s father-in-law to loan us $10K, which got us started on this experiment called Terraine.

We both brought our own Macintosh SE computers and an Imagewriter inkjet printer to a spare bedroom in his rental house on Ball Camp Road in Knoxville, and we bought a fax machine for around $1,300. We were on our way!

Ups and Downs Are Par for the Course
Flash forward to 1997…2 offices, 25 full-time employees, annual revenues of around $6M…and mounting losses due to a few mistakes and over-expansion into capital-intensive lines of business like garbage collection at the Smoky Mountain National Park and the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Facility in Virgina.

After cutting back and streamlining some things, we got back to decent financial shape in the early 2000s, especially when we joint ventured with Ensafe Inc. (a much larger entity) and started working on large environmental projects for the US Navy and US Army Corps of Engineers. This work eventually led to the Adesso Systems software that I found that I really liked and became good at using to build paperless data collection systems.

Eventually, we had plenty of capital and ended up acquiring the intellectual property of Adesso Systems for a huge sum of money.  Thus began our move and migration from traditional environmental consulting to technology consulting, which is where we are at nowadays.

It’s a Journey
The point of all of this is that we are still here…different, but here, and my journey as an entrepreneur over the last 22 years has been filled with a lot of mistakes, some successes, a ton of learning, huge marketplace swings, a move into the tech sector, and always a positive outlook toward what the future will bring. Of what might be just around the corner for us. And what new and cool things I will learn on the way there.

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Sea Level Rise and a Little Colbert

Some big environmental news lately has concerned the fact that the ocean level is rising. Well we knew that already, right? What we didn’t know is that the ocean level off the east coast of the US (from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts) is rising 2 to 3 times quicker than average global water levels — about 2 – 3.7 millimeters a year as opposed to 0.6 – 1 millimeters a year globally.

There are different theories regarding sea level rise. The two big camps tout human-induced climate change or state that it is part of a natural cycle. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Three Reasons For Global Sea Level Rise
Melting Ice Caps
This one is a no brainer — environmentalists and scientists have been stating this for years. About 1.7% (5,773,000 cubic miles) of the Earth’s water is stored in ice caps and glaciers, enough to raise the sea level by 230 feet if they all melted away.

Thermal Expansion
Water is a strange molecule. Most molecules expand as they warm and contract as they cool. Water does this to some degree, but for some reason (any chemists out there please chime in!), water is most dense at 4 degrees Celsius. Any warming or cooling from that point causes it to expand. According to National Geographic, sea level temperatures have risen globally by about 0.1 degrees Celsius over the past century. The ICC projects that thermal expansion will account for roughly half of the average rise by 2090.

Groundwater Use
Yes, groundwater is now said to have a role in rising ocean levels. The rationale is that any water pumped from the ground will eventually find its way to the ocean. This has largely been ignored by the forecast models that assume groundwater extraction will be balanced by river damming.

Using a model that projects climate impacts, Yadu Pokrel of Rutgers University added human water use components and assumed that global water demands not met by surface water come from groundwater. The result? Groundwater runoff accounts for approximately 34% of annual sea level rise.

Why Are Sea Levels Rising Faster Along the East Coast?
It has been suggested that the acceleration of sea level rise along the east coast is consistent with slowing of Atlantic currents. These currents are driven by the sinking of the cold, denser water in the arctic. The warmer arctic waters are not sinking as quickly, leading to slower currents and a ‘hotspot’ in rising sea levels. By 2100, it is predicted that sea levels along the east coast will have risen an additional 8 to 11 inches along with the average global sea level rise.

What Can Be Done?
States along the east coast are currently exploring ways to deal with the rise.

The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts has been preparing for sea level rise by changing development codes in Flood Zones and inspecting utility systems statewide.

In North Carolina, a group called NC-20, which is (according to the Insurance Journal) made up of the 20 oceanside counties in NC and favors coastal development, protested these findings. It lead to the NC State legislature exploring a bill (that did not pass) that would simply have made this rising sea level prediction illegal. Confused? Please allow Stephen Colbert to explain.

However, North Carolina did recently pass a law that bans lawmakers from making sea level policy changes for the next 4 years.

If you are interested in reading more on seal level rise, click here and here.


Written by: Chris Hollinger

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Environmental Consulting: Forever in the Field

In the environmental consulting world, quite a few positions require extensive travel. When I first started at Terraine, I had to go out in the field for 10 to 12 days at a time approximately every 3 months. Each morning, my partner and I would meet in the hotel lobby around 6:30 am, grab muffins that had a 65-year shelf life, and hop (more like schlump) our butts into the seats of the pick-up that, because of the rain the day before, smelled a bit like wet dog.    

The conversation to the field site was more like coffee-slurp grunting, but after days of working together, it became our own language (translation = shut up, I’m tired).   One month out of the year, field conditions were pleasant, but in other months, it could be down-right miserable. Hot and humid, wet and stormy, nearly freezing (for me, that means 55 degrees), and then there were the other days – you know, hot as hell with a chance of spontaneous (human) combustion. Each day, we’d drag ourselves back to our rooms around 7:00 pm, shower, and collapse on the crunchy I-don’t-want-to-know-what-is-on-this bedspread.

There were pluses of fieldwork, too, but listing those would take away from the tone of my post, so another day…

Anyway, you know as well as I do that environmental sampling field work is both physically and emotionally challenging at times.  Some of you have to leave behind children, significant others, or a dog, and that can be hard!  I’ve heard of folks that have to be out in the field 3 weeks at a time with only several days off before the next 3-week-long event.  I’ve heard of folks that have had to work on the weekend, with no time off upon their return, and then are given a $5 gift card to a coffee shop to say thanks (ouch).

At Terraine, we started off by telling folks that if they worked a weekend, they could “take it back,” meaning they could take those 2 days off at some point the following week. Then, we implemented a non-PTO policy nonpolicy, which basically says, take time off when you need it. So if Franky the Field Fella (big fan of alliteration if you haven’t gotten that by now) goes out in the field for 10 days, including a Saturday and Sunday, and he’s still tired after 2 days off, he can take a third, fourth, or even fifth day.  Because the fact is, if Franky is still tired, got a bad sunburn, or just needs a break, he’s not going to be productive in the office anyway, and he’ll respect management for recognizing that.

What are your thoughts on how extensive field events should be handled?  How much time off should salaried employees be entitled to if they work 70 hours a week over 3 weeks? Should those positions that require extensive field work like field technician, environmental scientist, and project geologist be paid based on number of hours worked? Should folks at least be able to take their weekends back? What are the policies (or non-policies) where you work on extensive field efforts?


Written by: Karen Baer

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Fixed Price Environmental Contracts and Magic 8 Balls

Allow me to get this off my chest: I do not like fixed priced environmental consulting contracts.

Fixed price contracts are for risk takers.

I am not.

Fixed price contracts are for people who like Magic 8 Balls.

I do not.

Fixed price contracts are for people who like tarot cards, crystal balls, and fortune cookies.

I do not, I do not, and fortune cookies taste like cardboard.

Ok, ok, so I understand that fixed price contracts beat the alternative time and material contracts for people who like to gouge eyeballs, but where’s the trust?  Not everyone out there plays solitaire and accounts for it as data analysis, or spends hours, days, no — YEARS, on tasks that serve absolutely no purpose.  Not everyone stands by the water cooler chatting about whatever it is that gets discussed around a water cooler.  Not everyone is a low-life, slimey, no good, selfish, money-mooching…..

I digress.

Price proposals are based off of predictions, perhaps a bit more reliable than the aforementioned 8-ball, but stuff happens.  Drill rigs break, people get sick, wasps decide to take up residence near your wells, pH probes die, tires go flat…the list goes on.  Of course, you can try to account for these types of things, but when clients are dealing with shoe string budgets, chance are, you won’t end up with nearly the amount of money you initially proposed when you finally sign on the dotted line.  Chances are, you’ll end up barely squeaking by, or dipping into what was supposed to be your profit.

Whew.  I feel better now, thanks.

So what do you think?  Whare’s the middle ground between fixed price and time and materials?  What contract structure do you believe is fair?
 


Written by: Karen Baer

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment

Field Test Kits: A Love-Hate (But Mostly Hate) Relationship

If I had to add number 22 to this list of the Absolute Worst Things in the World, I’m fairly certain I would add a picture of a soggy powder pillow from some field test kit. If not the pillow, then the lineup of at least a dozen kits that are required in addition to the 14+ sample bottles you have to fill up with groundwater to send to the lab.

I know you are probably thinking that I’m being a bit dramatic, that there are far worse things in life than a useless reagent packet (like the last little insufficient sliver of toilet paper stuck to the cardboard tube, or maybe even a lipstick stain on a coffee cup that you’ve been drinking from). But no, not for me.

Spending days upon days in the field, in all sorts of weather, trying to get little sprinkles of salt-like reagent powder out of teeny-tiny, foil, stamp-sized squares and into test kit vials became a bit of an annoyance, furthered by thoughts that these colorimetric tests really weren’t telling me that much other than if a specific metal, for example, was present in the groundwater or not. A qualitative test with an immediate result, yes! But quantitative…not so much. I could tell by the water’s odor if hydrogen sulfide was present in groundwater; $40 alka seltzer tablets and reagent paper weren’t telling me what I couldn’t already smell. Between minor differences in turbidity, differences of opinion between field technicians, and differences in lighting, indicating a particular concentration for colorimetric field test kits just seemed too subjective to me.

If you are required to use a field kit, and there’s no getting around it, I would recommend the use of Chemetrics over Hach. Both are pretty well known, so why Chemetrics? Because it helps you avoid the aforementioned #22 on my list of the Absolute Worst Thing in the World, that’s why. Chemetric tests include self-filling reagent ampoules, not those pillow packets, which are a snap (sad pun, I know), and all can be performed in about 2 minutes. Chemetrics touts the following benefits:

  1. Less labor intensive than other field test kits (true).
  2. No mixing, no measuring, no mess (yup).
  3. Fewer steps, fewer errors (word).
  4. Safer testing (perhaps true, but not a huge wow factor for me, given use of gloves during sample collection).

Field techs: what has your experience been working with field test kits? Are they helpful, or more of a pain? Has the data proved valuable for your site evaluations?

Environmental laboratories: what tests do you believe are best performed as field test kits, and what tests do you believe are best performed in the laboratory setting?
 


Written by: Karen Baer

Posted in Environmental Topics | Leave a comment