Creating good data to drive smart decisions

Class Acts-Sustainability: Hunter uses math, statistics and engineering to make cities more sustainable and equitable

Channing Hunter spent four years at Washington University using and analyzing data in sustainability issues, such as reducing greenhouse emissions on campus. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

Before the campaign promise, the policy change or the tax proposal, there is the data point.

As a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Channing Hunter has helped municipal leaders in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis inventory and understand their carbon emissions data so they can launch policies that improve the environment, human health and the economy. Phoenix, for instance, has adopted solar energy, replaced diesel buses with those fueled by natural gas and has incentivized development along its light rail system.

“Most of us can agree that, yes, we want clean air and clean water,” Hunter said. “But how do we reach those goals? It all starts with the data. Policy makers are saying, ‘Show me the numbers.’ They want to know what the implications are for a given strategy — the implications for the environment, the budget, the taxpayers, different people in communities. Before you can make a good decision, you need good data.”

Hunter graduates from Washington University in St. Louis May 18 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in Arts & Sciences and a master’s in environmental energy and chemical engineering from the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

He already has obtained a certificate in renewable energy and the environment through Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC). And after a gap year, Hunter plans to enroll in a PhD program in either engineering or mathematics to further study the intersection of statistics, engineering and sustainability. His passion for data sets reflects a commitment to equality.

“Everyone is a person,” he said. “Whether you are American, Saudi Arabian, Mexican, German, Japanese. And everyone has right to basic human resources such as a reliable fresh food source and water — let me refine that — clean water.

“Data can help us address those issues and, just as importantly, point out inequalities people don’t want to talk about,” Hunter said. “But that’s only if the data are transparent and shared in a way that people can understand.”

Take, for instance, the West Lake Landfill in nearby Bridgeton, Mo. For decades, residents have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the radioactive waste, a byproduct of St. Louis’ role in uranium enrichment during the Manhattan Project, at the Superfund site. Hunter helped provide data analysis to the local advocacy group Just Moms STL and submitted documents to the EPA. 

Just as important, he met community members to see if their experiences jibed with government findings that the site was safe. They did not. 

If the data does not match a community’s experiences, then we have to see where the data has gaps,” said Hunter, who is a member of the student advocacy group Green Action“That’s where we, as data analysts, have to be advocates. The data tells us part of the story, not all of the story. We have to put the numbers and the experiences together to get the full picture.

In what is considered a major step forward, the EPA proposed earlier this year removing 70 percent of the nuclear waste. After graduation, Hunter will continue to support Just Moms STL in their effort to find safe and permanent solution to the crisis.

“West Lake is a perfect example of what not to do with data,” Hunter said. “Clearly, the government knew what was happening at the site, but refused or hesitated to be transparent with the data. This caused compounding issues that will have long-lasting effects on Bridgeton, the greater St. Louis region and the surrounding areas in North County.”

Hunter also is playing a big role in the work of Washington University’s Office of Sustainability to better understand energy usage on campus, collecting 60 data points from 200 buildings. The massive data set, which is part of the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager initiative, will be released publicly. It also supports the Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge and a new St. Louis ordinance that requires to report the energy usage of its facilities.

Like the municipalities Hunter has served, the university will use this information to reduce emissions. Phil Valko, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability and Hunter agree: regions, cities and businesses are driving innovations in emissions reduction.

“He’s created for us a powerful tool that will tee up the next suite of changes,” Valko said. “Without data, we’re flying blind. We don’t know if we are focusing on the right thing or using resources strategically.”

When Valko and Hunter aren’t evaluating plug load energy efficiency or lighting retrofits, they are imagine a just world where everyone has access to clean air and water.

“There is nothing like sitting down with Channing and talking about the big picture,” Valko said. He really is a systems thinker and understands how pieces of the broader equation connect. He understand the interplay between transportation, how we build, where we work and how that impacts humanity. He sees the whole puzzle.”

Read more about the Class Acts of 2018 here.

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