Openness of information is a crucial thing in improving the efficiency of risk assessment work. A large part of the costs of making a risk assessment arises from collecting basic information. There are large quantities of data available, but extracting the right information is expensive due to several reasons: it takes time to go through publication databases and find relevant articles; the data is usually not in a directly usable format, but it needs organising and synthesising; the source of information is copyrighted, and it cannot be used as such without an explicit permission from the copyright owner, usually the journal. To decrease the costs of a risk assessment, relevant information should be systematically collected into a repository that is in public domain, i.e. the contents are freely usable by anyone. Risk assessors and researchers should be encouraged to provide the information they have collected for their own assessments. Such a repository would benefit other assessors and the society at large. The extra work needed from information providers should be acknowledged as work for general good.
In the new risk assessment, the system is designed in a way that increases the availability of information. This is done in three steps, which are:
- collecting information about data sources to the data gateway,
- collecting information about the substance itself to the encyclopedia, and
- organising the information into the structured form as variables in open risk assessments.
Data gateway contains meta-data, i.e. information about existing data. All data owners are encouraged to provide information about their data, and also those who are aware of a piece of data should place a short description in the data gateway. The threshold for providing meta-data to the gateway should be kept as low as possible. Even very limited information is often useful, as a critical thing in making a risk assessment may be that some certain information sources are not identified at all. This lack of information is very costly to the assessor, but providing that information is very cheap to someone who knows about the information source. This kind of meta-data is almost always open, and there is rarely any copyright issues related to it.
However, the meta-data alone is not enough for making a risk assessment. Actual data about the variables must be obtained. There are systematic information sources for some kinds of information, such as IRIS, a database of human health effects that may result from exposure to various substances found in the environment. These sources are extremely valuable for the risk assessment work. Not all information has been collected and organised in such a systematic way. There are different kinds of information that is needed. Some kinds of information are described in the table below.
|Kind of data
|General descriptions of phenomena and properties
|Things that are basic knowledge for an expert: "why dioxins are harmful?"
|Easily found with some effort
|Established properties of e.g. chemicals or populations
|Common and routinely used building blocks in risk assessments: octanol-water partition coefficients or population age structures
|Easily found if data sources are known
|Necessary but not established properties
|Average concentrations of or exposures to a particular chemical in a particular area or population
|Hard work to go through literature. The author or journal has the copyright for republishing.
|Detailed measurement data about properties
|Data from studies on individual observation level
|Usually not available or only at request*
|The need to protect individual privacy limits the availability. Researchers often not willing to give their data.
*Recently, there has been an increasing trend of publishing the data together with the article as supporting material, or providing the data to an open repository.
Efficiency of the risk assessment process improves if all the different kinds of information are easily available. The encyclopedia offers help in this and acts as a repository for data and more synthesised information. If the information is already easily accessible and openly usable, there is little point in copying it to the encyclopedia. It is not meant to be a repetition of IRIS or other existing databases. However, it should be noted that there is a large difference between "easily available" and "openly available". Even if anyone can buy a textbook about exposure assessment, not everyone does, although he/she would need that information to make state-of-the-art exposure estimates for a risk assessment. The result is a bunch of not-so-great exposure estimates.
Therefore, there is a high value for having an open information repository as the encyclopedia. It should be organised in a way that it is very easy to add information to and that the existing information can easily be found from and further organised. When someone has made the effort to find, collect, and organise information for his own assessment, it should be practically no additional work to upload that information to the encyclopedia for anyone to use. If this is successful, the work the risk assessors do for their own assessments benefits the whole risk assessment community and improves the efficiency of all assessments. This way of working has been proved efficient with Wikipedia.
However, as with Wikipedia, there is a special need to pay attention to copyright issues and ownership of the data. Although many things are available to read, they are not necessarily available to be copied and republished elsewhere. The data owner may set restrictions to the use of the data, which must not be violated. On the other hand, such open repository sends a message to copyright owners: there is a place for collaboration here, and if you are not willing to collaborate, the same data may be found from somewhere else.
Finally, the data that is in the encyclopedia must be structured to match the format of open risk assessments. When the data has already been collected and made openly available in the encyclopedia, this restructuring is merely a technical issue. However, it requires work and is not free of cost. Therefore, it is likely that only a part of the data in the encyclopedia will be structured as variables and directly used in risk assessments. But again, since the system is openly available, when one assessor has done this work, the result is available to all. This is one of the ultimate objectives of the open risk assessment idea: as the work can be based more and more on existing work, new risk assessments can be performed with less resources. Or, on the other hand, with the same amount of resources, the risk assessments will become more comprehensive and cover better the needs of the decision-makers.