I'm looking forward to this year's Blogathon, Reports of Climate Change From Your Backyard, which started collating posts today on the local impacts of global warming.
Depending on what state you're in, there's a lot of incendiary Apocalyptic char to work with this year, and the organizers are bringing in all manner of scientists and pols and economists etc. It will probably be moving, persuasive, and will completely freak out the last person in America who isn't already totally freaked out about climate change. (Hopefully there will be contributions from the solutions-oriented as well!) And then they will all go to volunteer for Obama or build our own solar utilities in our backyards out of tinfoil and copper wire.
I like this project especially because it's distributed science - that is, scientific inquiry conducted by a multitude of observers (usually Internet-enabled). Often the observers are amateurs, unpaid, even anonymous, and it's typically used to break down enormous data sets and make them manageable. It's so beautiful and makes the little part of my heart devoted to Amish barnraisings and UNIX coders just explode with joy.
People working together to solve a puzzle is always inspiring, partially because it's a very rare occurence, especially in the hyper-hyper-professionalized realm of science.
Astronomy has provided the the best example of distributed inquiry so far. Much of what is observed in astronomy happens in an instant in one particular corner of the sky, and the volume of data that is being gathered by the celestial machines is far greater than the current human capacity to analyze it. So projects like the Galaxy Zoo ask amateur astronomers to rifle through thousands of images sent back to Earth by satellites, in a really simple Web interface (see left). In 2010 they discovered an entirely new class of galaxies called "Green Peas."
Last month, a new species was discovered on Flickr - a gorgeous, graceful Malaysian bug called a green lacewing.
A Californian entomologist was randomly looking at photos, came across this shot by Guek Hock Ping, taken in a Malaysian park. Hadn't recognized the pattern on the wings, so he emailed Guek, asked him to go back to the park and get some specimens, pop them in a container, and ship it to the British Natural History Museum. There you go. New species!
This holds so much promise that it's almost silly when these things get reported. Why didn't we think to do that before? Whatever creepy billion-dollar technology Facebook is using to identify your friends' facial bone structure right now could be put to the use of science! Like how the space program gave us TANG, except the other way around.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which measures everything, had an analog crowd-sourced program called "The National Map." For 20 years, they opened envelopes sent from all 50 states with scrawled corrections, "THAT ROAD ISN'T THERE" and so on. It was canceled due to budget constraints five years before social media was invented; it's been resurrected as of this week. They are starting the first GeoData project in Colorado,and if you can make it past the massive wildfires, them you can participate!
The reason I got thinking about all of this in the first place was the utterly critical and mostly ignored quandary at the root of so many of our environmental problems: manufacturing chemistry. It is the picture in the dictionary next to downstream effects. Trees, fish, your kidneys, your children, your children's children, your tree's children's children...
It also happens to be a huge data problem.
There are approximately 20,000 chemicals used in manufacturing globally, and only a tiny fraction of them have been studied for the most rudimentary impacts on human health, let alone several million other species. Even more disturbingly, the means by which designers and engineers choose chemicals for products is largely blind, uninformed, arbitrary, and bound by convention, whatever their own best intentions might be.
As sustainability has become valued in the marketplace, there have been more incentives to collate this information and make it accessible to designers and manufacturers. A lot of the work has been done in consultancies - my former employers at Cradle to Cradle, or the Green Screen by Clean Production Action. Autodesk and Google are also working on different versions of this, hopefully open and transparent.
I can't help but think that there must be a way to apply crowdsourcing to this venture, the magnitude and importance of which is unfortunately understood now by a small group of people. There are flaps in the news about BPA or other toxins fairly often, but most consumers don't know enough about manufacturing to know how much of the iceberg is below water...or how futile it is, really, to change one ingredient in a universally doped-up soup. The reality is, in 40 years of regulation, very little progress has been made on the area of toxics.
The thing with distributed science is, though, whether it's blogging on carbon or identifying spiral galaxies, it never fails to illuminate. If there were just a CAPTCHA for the world of industrial chemistry...