If you want to do cutting-edge science, you need access to cutting-edge data. Exciting new data is generally expensive to acquire and therefore closely guarded. Naturally whoever pays for the data wants to get the first crack at the fame-generating discoveries thereby engendered. You probably could have figured out, for instance, that Jupiter had a ring around it if you’d seen the picture first, but the people who got to write that press release had put in years of sharp-elbowed jostling to be standing in the right place when the data hose opened up.
But most jealously guarded data has a more depressing fate. Like the storybook dragon that guards the captive virgin, data owners often hoard it without any clear notion of what to do with it or how to value it. It reminds me of Harvard’s fortress-like Widener Library. It’s the world’s largest university library, and it’s carefully sealed and locked down to prevent unlicensed books from leaking out and unwashed people (that’s you and me) from sneaking in. Good job guys! Nobody’s going to be seeing those books anytime soon.
Recently, however, the world of data-intensive science has started to change, and the change is this: there’s more than enough data to go around. You can now do (real! serious!) astronomy from your computer if you’ve got the inclination and the chops. The pictures from Saturn and Mars come pouring onto your screen as fast as they do for the lead planetary scientists on the project. The human genome is all yours.
To me, an even bigger surprise than this is that field biology (field myrmecology to be precise) is also opening up to the browser-bound mouse potatoes of the world. You would think that the sweat and effort that goes into collecting ants in Madagascar, not to mention the thrill of naming new species, would keep the data locked down, but pioneering entomologist Brian Fisher is changing the game. As reported in Discover magazine, he wants you to know what he knows as soon as he knows it.
E. O. Wilson, the godfather of ant biology and the conservation movement, calls Fisher’s methods “industrial-strength taxonomy.” He means it as high praise. Fisher himself says he aspires to the time-and-efficiency thinking of a car manufacturer.
Fisher has gone so far as to create antweb.org, where he’s posting pictures of what he’s finding in Madagascar as soon as he can manage it. If you switch on the community features of Google Earth, you’ll find special icons indicating where ant species have been identified. That’s how you put the data where it’ll do some good. Brian Fisher is a scientific hero for the data-rich networked age.