A Dearth of Data Solutions (A Rant. A Plea. A Feature List.)

I seem to have developed a rather bad habit—I am constantly collecting data. Not just “data” as the internet of things and standard industries define ‘data’–bits and bytes and pieces of information that will fit happily in a spreadsheet and can be plotted on an x and y axis (though I collect plenty of that as well between my smart phone and my Fitbit). But visual data, spatial data. The types of data that there is still no unifying system for neatly, seamlessly collecting and sharing. There is no way for me to annotate it, for me to keep it all together, or for me to share it. There is no way to quickly turn it round and make a daily adventure of data collection into something more than disparate pieces of potential content on my phone.

I want a better system. I want a better mechanism. I want a better way for the world to experience content.

I want to be able to go on one of my little adventures round Silicon Valley (and even more so my massive international field seasons with even more types of lovely gadgets and gizmos to collect even more gorgeous layers of impossible to easily disseminate data) and be able to have it instantly translated into a unified bit of something.

I want something more than a single Instagram post about an adventure because I was rushed.

I want something more than a backdated Facebook album that I only got round to putting up months later and often sans any more meta data than a quick person tag or single location blurb.

I want something more than an iffy blog post that I rapidly throw together and then backdate to try to make the timeline of my life and assorted scientific endeavors seem like they had some kind of cumulative order.

I want something more than an academic paper published even later than all of the above and which few, if any, will ever read.

I want a multimedia extravaganza of content that allows anyone else that wanders into it to explore it at their leisure and at whatever depth they want.

I am the Veruca Salt of data.

And I want a goose that lays gold eggs for easter. I want a system that will let me take random pictures of geese spotted at Shoreline park, turn it into a shareable 3D model of said geese, cross reference in my Willy Wonka reference, and that will also prompt me to ask if I also want to note the geese migratory patterns and perhaps share the fact that I saw some geese in the bottom of the South Bay with any relevant scientific endeavor that might be wanting to track that data.

The more I wander merrily out on my little local mini-adventures, the more I feel this dearth of a place to put everything.

For example:

The other morning, I made a return visit to Garrapata State Park at the top of Big Sur to catch a rather intriguing low tide at dawn.

I wish I had a way of comparing and contrasting the pictures from my previous March visit to the same site just after all the big storms. (And wouldn’t it be cool if those same pictures could be zinged to anyone studying beach deformation and tide lines etc). I wish I had a way of comparing and contrasting my pictures against other people’s pictures of different tides (because TBH—the super low tide I was expecting was definitely low, but it had little going on in terms of beachcombing. I literally collected 0 seashells. I’m not exaggerating. 0. Did end up with a few lovely rocks though).

I wish I had a way of plotting out what bits and pieces I did find on previous adventures—the fact that last time I found two baby abalone shells and this time nada. The fact that there was a new little waterfall falling down the way. Or that the lovely stream that flows down through the calla lillies had changed its pathway across the sand. Or that the types of wild flowers in bloom had already shifted (or even better, that would help me identify them in situ). I wish I had a way of coordinating the GIFS of waves crashing on the far rocks at the end of the beach and the potential structure from motion photogrammetry (SfM) I snagged of a particularly interesting freestanding rock pillar into a better version of my photos and video albums. And were I to want to share some lovely SfM 3D model with anyone–I’d have to go through additional processing of the model, plan out a little video of it, turn that into a gif, and then and only then–you can kinda share it–but it’s only part of it. It’s only tiny slices of the phenomenological human experience that we can share across our social media systems. And I want more. I want a content feast of more formats and more dimensions.

We have sensors and mechanisms outside of ourselves to record these things. To constantly aid and abet our scientific observation of the world around us. To constantly add to the compendium of possible contextual knowledge that builds our knowledge of this world and perhaps the multiverses beyond. And yet we have not sorted this out yet.

It still takes so much time and manhandling to turn a tiny little adventure into parsable content its not a wonder that the publication rate of scientific exploration is still not that far off from the days of von Humboldt (one of my latest particular favorites) and other early explorers. In fact, I’d say that Humboldt probably managed to snag and publish more information on his 18th century trips to the ‘New World’ than most scholars today, renaissance man, polymath, and visualization genius that he was.

The overhyped, but entirely deserving Michael Crichton has a bit in his rather awesome novel ‘Timeline’ where one of the characters points out that the ‘hard sciences’ have gone through at least three revolutions in the past century–three points where humanity thought we’d learned all we could learn and built all we could built, and each time new technology has come along to revolutionize our conception of what we know and what we’re capable of . However, in that same amount of time, Crichton cleverly points out that the humanities have gone through none. We are still more or less conducting social science investigation via the same methodologies–albeit on much bigger scales of data. We are still personally cross-referencing and forcing extant systems to our needs. The humanities, on behalf, of humanity, deserve better technologies, better mechanisms to sort things out.

At it’s base point–we need a place for data to go to so that it can become content, so it can become data, so that it can become knowledge, so that it can save and improve lives. Can we get on with that already please?

Rant completed.


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